Photo: Bittu Sahgal.
The waters swirled around us as we attempted to cross the rivulet. Although not particularly deep, the forest stream was significantly higher than what it was just a half hour earlier, and smiles had given way to small frowns of concentration. Steadied by a spontaneously formed human chain of fathers, wide-eyed children were carried one by one across the now surging stream that flaunted nature’s quiet power for city folk whose hearts momentarily thumped just a little louder. Tired, happy and soaked to the bone, our ragtag group of naturalists and enthusiastic families squelched its way back through the washed out trail with damaged cellphones and defeated umbrellas packed away. Something about that particular morning at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, where we ‘saw’ very little (every creature seemed to be hiding from the storm) remains etched in the memories of even the youngest participants. There were no great facts learned or species ticked off checklists, there was just the blinding green foliage, the smell of wet earth and the incessant drumming of the warm monsoon rain. We were connected to each other and our immediate environment in a way that barriers of metal and concrete rarely permit.
THE NATURE CONNECTION
The magnetic power of such outdoor experiences could be explained by the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that human beings have an innate affinity for nature and other life forms. Individuals across the country who lead trails and expeditions into protected wilderness areas or smaller urban green oases would attest to that, often reporting how children exposed to nature are quickly captivated by its magic and beauty, expressing the wondrous mix of curiosity, awe, joy and love towards the biosphere.
Unfortunately, as India becomes increasingly urbanised, the disconnection of our children from nature is far greater than just a few decades ago. The great machinery of consumer culture and advertising roars louder, enticing them into the dominant lifestyle of consumption, screens and technology. Nature, on the other hand, calls out softly in our cities, hidden and quiet, yet vibrant and thriving for those who choose to seek it out. Regular exposure to the natural world could energise this instinct, just as disconnection from it could whittle away at it. It is up to us to choose which way we shepherd the next generation.
Author Richard Louv, who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ in his influential 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, started an international conversation on the importance of reconnecting children with nature. High on his list of reasons to do so is an urgent need to create a generation of environmental stewards ready to face the era of ecological instability that we have bequeathed them.
The idea that early experiences in nature set the foundation for future environmental action is not new, and the forward thinking Rachel Carson spoke earnestly about the ‘sense of wonder’ about the natural world that must be kept alive in every child. Recent research, particularly by Professor Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado who studied the childhood influences of contemporary environmentalists, cites positive experiences in natural areas in childhood or adolescence, and adult role models, as key factors in nurturing environmentalism.
But what about environmental education in schools – won’t it create the next generation of environmentalists? Well, not exactly. Studies suggest that the most effective way to nurture environmental responsibility is to provide young children with direct experiences in nature that involves their senses and feelings. In Indian schools today, environmental education takes place in classrooms, rarely outdoors. Most often it is taught the way everything else is – through textbooks, by rote and with little room for creative thinking, emotional engagement or first-hand experience. Too often, young children are confronted with dire facts about climate change, species extinction or Amazonian deforestation. Not only do we run the risk of feeding our children a diet of frightening negativity or cramming them with facts, but we also often miss a very important thing – relevance in their daily context. Kids who can rattle off names of endangered species in Africa may be unable to recognise three trees in their building compounds. While it’s fantastic to spot tigers in the wild, it’s equally important to be enraptured by a spider web in the neighbourhood park.
Experts suggest that young children who feel empathy and love for the natural world are primed to grow up with a desire to explore nature and garner the knowledge needed to fight to protect it. It is love, not fear, that makes us take up cudgels. We fight for things we care deeply about, and only when each assault on nature is looked upon as an assault on something beloved, can we really create adults who naturally gravitate towards ecologically sustainable choices.
LET’S GO OUTSIDE
Time outside in nature has been proven to create healthier children with increased attention spans, better academic performance, lower stress levels, spiritual grounding and improved moods. The list of benefits of getting children outdoors is long. In fact, experts in the field suggest that ideally children need more than an occasional weekend walk in the forest with parents and guides. They need daily free, unstructured play outdoors by themselves. Free to climb trees and explore without adult supervision. While it’s unlikely that this could happen in Indian cities bursting with traffic, crime and chaos, it is an ideal to aspire to. For those of us seeking to help tip the scales in favour of ecological sanity and a gentler world, perhaps we could each pick the simplest and most enjoyable task in order to sensitise the next generation to nature. We could focus on the children in our lives and help fire their inbuilt sense of wonder, by simply getting them outside.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 3, June 2014.