There is a risk that we are raising children that are physically unscathed by injury but are psychologically fragile, Carl Dixon tells Mark Boyden.
In the US, prison inmates are guaranteed two hours outdoors per day, but a recent survey of 12,000 parents in 10 countries who have children aged five to 12, found that one-third of kids spend under 30 minutes outside each day.
Similarly, a recent UK study, found that three quarters of children spend less time outside than prison inmates.
Perversely it seems we will punish young criminals by denying them access to a world, which in their normal life, they rarely encountered.
The ramifications of this rather abrupt change in human behaviour are already reflected in elevated levels of obesity, but there may well be other, more subtle impacts, which will only reveal themselves over time.
Based in Coomhola in West Cork, Mark Boyden is the originator and director of the StreamScapes educational programme and was recently awarded an Honorary Masters degree by University College Cork for his work over the last 25 years in bringing children and adults out to visit their local rivers.
He believes that exposure to nature is vital.
“Initially we brought aquaria into schools so the kids could watch the salmon hatch,” he says.
“It was unique at that time but the field trip was the key. Children are fascinated by creepy crawlies and loved surveying their local stream.
"Often they would take what they learned home to their parents and it was a way of disseminating an environmental message without ascribing blame. The course was and remains local; it focuses on the valley that you live in.
"People sometimes think that the environment is something that happens somewhere else, but small things matter. The chemicals we use in our houses, how we treat our waste, these things have direct impacts at a local level.
"Our goal is to engage and empower people and communities to protect their own environment. I remember attending a conference in Vichy where 300 of the top scientists in Atlantic salmon biology were gathered.
"But outside the hotel, I could see this guy hosing down the rubbish from his lorry directly into a stream. As a lay person rather than a scientist, I wanted to bridge that gap in communication.”
To inspire children with the wonder of nature can’t be done without a deep love of the natural world, which is deeply ingrained in his psyche.
“I was always attracted to rivers and the sea and I used to also do a lot of mountaineering,” Boyden says. “I spent a lot of time with Indian tribes and I was one of the first westerners to hike into the isolated area of Zanskar in Tibet.
"I found great joy in the outdoor world and always had this desire to communicate that sense of wonder to other people.”
But does the outdoor world still have a vital role to play? The digital world is designed to provide layers of safe, structured challenge via games or constant shots of entertainment via social media.
Western society has been designed to make the physical safety of humans of paramount importance — traffic lights, referees for sports, low-risk playgrounds — but in the natural world, self-reliance and judgment are required.
A rotten tree branch, misjudging the tide or losing a torch have ramifications. As the 19th-century orator Robert G. Ingersoll noted there are in nature neither rewards nor punishments —but consequences.
“As children we were allowed two hours of television a week and that forced us to be imaginative and find our entertainment in the outside world,” Boyden recalls. “I went on a 10-day solo camping trip age 15 into the coastal mountains in California with 4lbs of cheese and 5 lbs of flour. I learned a lot about resourcefulness and self-reliance.
“By 16, I was taking long trips to Asia with the merchant navy from San Francisco. I was often out of contact for months at a time, but I don’t remember my parents being particularly worried. They knew it served a purpose and let me get on with it.”
Maybe modern parents have allowed themselves to be persuaded that the risks in the modern world are greater, but in reality they aren’t. Climbing a tree is no more dangerous now than it was then.
What has changed is our perception of risk and perhaps our unwillingness to deal with the stress that such risks create in us as parents.
The overpowering instinct to protect our children, which was so necessary in our evolutionary past, may well be excessive in a modern suburban estate, and yet we underestimate less tangible long-term threats like obesity, diabetes, anxiety and depression which may come from a sedentary, indoor existence. There is a risk that we raise children that are physically unscathed by injury, but psychologically fragile.
To counteract the influence of risk averse parents, forest schools have been set up in Scandinavia where even young children get to use knifes, light fires and collect berries. At an innovative school in England children are taught to use guns and how to gut and skin rabbits.
These activities bring a sense of excitement and enthusiasm which has translated into happier children and better academic performance. According to headmaster Mike Fairclugh “the most dangerous thing you can do to a child is not expose them to danger.”
In Singapore’s top schools, trekking trips are used to encourage creative thinking and in a Japanese kindergarten children and adults engage in vigorous running and wrestling play for 30 minutes before classes start.
If humans as a species evolved to be immersed in an active and often dangerous outdoor life, can we really thrive in an indoor digital world which is without risk? If children are to gain confidence and resilience from the outdoor world, parents have to find a way to control their fear.
To value the experience and the lesson it teaches over the risk.
“I remember a tremendous flood in the Coomhola River,” Boyden says.
“All I could see was this huge wall of brown and white water thundering down the valley. Suddenly my two sons came kayaking around the corner at breakneck speed, shot under the bridge and disappeared downstream.
"Do I remember feeling anxious? Not really. I am old enough to remember Vietnam and I am so grateful that none of my children have to fight a war. But sometimes young people have that need for danger, that need to harness the power of nature and to prove themselves. It is part of being human.”
What lessons has Mark learned from his years in environmental education?
“It should be an active immersive experience,” he says.
“Catching insects in a stream is much more fun than walking along a path. It works bests when it’s social and collaborative, when children have to bond together to achieve something.
"Be imaginative. Try and create a peak experience, better to have one exciting trip that they will be printed indelibly on their subconscious, rather than ten boring trips that no one remembers.
“I encounter former students now, who as adults clearly remember the day we came to their school and went to the river that is a major source of satisfaction for me.”
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