Thursday, April 5, 2012

Protect your children from Nature Deficit

With spring arriving before anyone’s expectation (except perhaps Wiarton Willie), children again feel the call of the outdoors. Meanwhile, horrible revelations trickle out from the Stafford murder trial, feeding parental nightmares of assault or kidnap. As father to two young girls, I share those concerns on a visceral level.
While there will always be a need to guard and street proof our children, we must keep our fears in perspective. If we keep children inside or shuttled around in cars, instead of outside and walking to and from activities, we risk doing them even greater harm.
As famed nature artist Robert Bateman noted when he spoke near Barrie last fall, although we resist this realization, most child abuse comes at the hands of relatives or family acquaintances – even in the Stafford tragedy. Rare is the child harmed by a true stranger. Keeping children inside can’t protect them from those who already have access, and only feeds a false sense of security.
Sitting in front of a video screen instead of playing outdoors leads to a variety of harms, including lack of concentration, exposure to violence or inappropriate sexuality, or even the growing cadre of online sexual predators. Supervising kids’ internet use 24/7 is beyond even the most involved parent. And of course physical inactivity feeds the obesity epidemic of our modern age.
Lack of outdoor time is not just physically unhealthy, but a mental problem we are just starting to understand. Termed “Nature Deficit Disorder”, this goes beyond failure do develop respect and appreciation for our natural world. It can also feed attention deficits, depression, or other mood disorders. Time spent freely exploring and playing in fields and forests is of huge benefit to a developing child’s psyche. Exposure to nature reduces stress and anxiety, improves grades, and creates real childhood memories for a lifetime.
Keeping children safe outside is not as hard as you might think. In addition to teaching about “stranger danger” and whom to contact in an emergency, the simple buddy system is remarkably effective. A lone child (or teenager, or even adult) may be a tempting victim to the feared roaming predator, but a group of two or three is an almost impossible target, which is why you don’t hear of drive-by group kidnappings.
Growing up in a small farming town, I was never far from a field or forest and can’t even count how much time I spent outdoors. In today’s urban environment, I struggle to provide my children with even a fraction of that amount of nature exposure. Yet this year I’m determined they will experience nature not just in books or zoos or documentaries, but in their own hands, eyes, and minds.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Exposure to nature reduces stress, anxiety"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.

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