World Environment Day: Childhood Nature Experiences – Reimagine, Recreate, Restore!

Diminishing childhood nature experiences is becoming a grave concern for rising nature apathy. The pandemic has aided in shifting the life of children completely indoors.

world environment day
‘Joy of being in nature comes from love for nature’ (Photo source:Dr. Pooja Sahni)

By Dr. Pooja Sahni & Prof. Jyoti Kumar

Human beings were designed to live in nature – Biophilia tells us so. However, we have continuously taken ourselves away from nature. From natural jungle to concrete jungle, the journey might have been argued as ‘progress’, but it has actually made the children alienated from nature which is affecting their wellbeing.

Diminishing childhood nature experiences is becoming a grave concern for rising nature apathy. The pandemic has aided in shifting the life of children completely indoors. Learning, and even playing, is predominantly through gadgets. As a result, the opportunity for direct and spontaneous contact with nature has become a vanishing experience for children! Much before the stay-at-home restrictions, the urban lifestyles and passive learning methods increasingly confined children indoors; disconnecting them from the natural world, says Richard Louv, author of ‘Last Child in the Woods’. Childhood impressions about nature are more and more getting influenced by media, written language and visual images. Nature documentaries, National Geographic and other nature TV channels are forcing children to think that nature is exotic, awe-inspiring and in faraway places beyond their reach. Children fail to realize that nature can be assessed in their own backyards and neighbourhoods!

The playgrounds – potential spaces for reconnecting children to nature – have been leached of greenery! A simple google search for the term, ‘children parks or playgrounds’ will typically yield images full of ‘manufactured’ climbing equipment rather than greens, trees or natural landscapes. Such designs reflect a lack of understanding of how quality outdoor play in nature-filled environments can provide children with rich and instinctive environmental learning.

It is believed that the loss of children’s contact with the natural world is negatively impacting their acquisition of knowledge and development. Stephan Kellert, a professor of social ecology who helped pioneer the theory of “biophilia”, says society today has become “so estranged from its natural origins, it has failed to recognize our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development.” The absence of sensorial stimulation and learning from touch, smell and feel in nature breeds apathy towards environmental concerns. Robert M. Pyle, a ranger-naturalist, called this the “extinction of experience” . Following which, the ‘self’ is seen as separate from nature. This feeling of disconnectedness from the natural world gives a false belief that nature is something to be controlled and dominated rather than loved and preserved.

world environment day
Classroom Teaching vs Experiential Learning. (Photo source: Dr. Pooja Sahni)

Teaching children about un-experienced ecological issues like rainforest destruction, acid rain and ozone holes can generate a feeling of indifference. Prof. Kellert further cautions that asking children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control can make them anxious.Children, especially the younger ones, may even develop a phobia of ecological issues.

Therefore, there is an immediate need to reimagine childhood education, recreate meaningful opportunities to connect with nature, and eventually restore the love for nature that so inherently exists within us.

I. ‘Reimagine’ childhood education Gurukuls (ancient Indian learning centres) were ideally located in the aranyakas (forests) with the focus being on imbibing knowledge based on experience. The students in these educational setups engaged in several self-learning and self-sustaining activities such as collecting firewood and fruits, experimenting with different herbs (ayurveda) as well as nourishing the nearby greens. These intense, nature-based activities led to enhanced observational skills, better understanding and a deep connection with nature. Recently, our research at IIT Delhi has shown that childhood nature experiences have positive effects on mindfulness, and superior cognitive functioning.

‘Nurture nature, nature nurtures’ (Photo source: Dr. Pooja Sahni)
‘Nurture nature, nature nurtures’ (Photo source: Dr. Pooja Sahni)

Cognitive skills

A team of scientists from the University of Illinois found that having a window inside classrooms through which nature can be viewed improves concentration and enhances self-discipline. Nature-based experiential assignments like; ‘know thy trees’, ‘know thy birds’ or ‘know thy flowers’ are believed to improve children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills. Children should be encouraged to participate and take responsibility through activities such as growing food in school or at home and preserving natural resources. We believe that nature-based activities offer rich sensory and dynamic experiences. Such activities enable students to assimilate the knowledge thus gained through prayog (experiment), avalokan (observation), manan (thinking), chintan (reflection) and nididhyasana (contemplation). In this process, children learn to instill a sense of peace and being-at-one with the world. One of our ongoing projects at National Resource Centre for Value Education (NRCVEE) at IIT Delhi, funded through a grant by Mind and Life Institute USA, aims to examine how wisdom gained through nature-based pedagogical methods supports a deep understanding of human-nature relationship, caring for nature, empathy, sense of gratitude and self-regulation of behaviour at an early age.

Interpersonal / social skills

Nature interactions are believed to be important for children’s development of independence and autonomy. Collective exploration in nature can perhaps bring about a realisation of their inter-dependence on each other as well as nature. Group field activities such as collecting twigs, sticks, leaves and flowers to create collaborative art forms can provide insightful learning experiences and may also stimulate healthy social interaction between children. This constructive interaction can possibly generate positive feelings about each other. Kimberly Schonert-Riechl, a developmental psychologist at University of Illinois, highlights that “gratitude walks” – asking children to notice things that they feel grateful for in nature – can bring awareness of their connection with nature and with others.

Greater plasticity

Nancy M. Wells, from the Centre for Human Ecology, Cornell University, expresses that the more extensive benefits of being in nature for children manifest in the form of greater plasticity. It may be reasoned that when children play in natural environments, the openness of the surroundings excite them to run, jog, hop and skip! Physical exercise arguably improves motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. The seasonal variations teach the children profound life lessons. Their keen observation of the changing natural surroundings may evoke reflective thinking. This process may unfold greater resilience towards difficulties in life.

Environmental ethics

It is argued that the combination of both formal learning and informal positive experiences in nature are associated with the development of children’s environmentally-responsible behaviours. Louise Chawla, a leading environmental psychologist at University of Colorado Boulder, remarks that connecting with nature offers opportunities for children to develop an environmental ethic. In one of our research studies published recently, ‘Exploring the human-nature connection and mindfulness’, we found that childhood experiences with nature enhance understanding of the human-nature relationship. Nature is seen as part of self and not distinct, which perhaps brings a strong sense of conservation and protection

‘Recreate’ childhood playgrounds

Initiatives should be taken to fill the playgrounds with nature to help children rekindle their power of exploration, discovery and imagination! We propose that the new playgrounds should follow biophilic designs. They should be informal and must fulfill children’s inherent need to interact with nature. Some of the components of such playgrounds should include water, plentiful indigenous vegetation, trees and bushes, flowers and long grasses. In this way, children may get the opportunity to closely observe bugs and butterflies and also realise their importance in the ecosystem. They can also touch and feel the diversity in colour and texture of materials present in nature, for example, sand, pebbles and rocks.

‘Restore’ love for nature

Research is clearly substantiating that an affinity and love for nature can only grow when children interact with nature regularly. John Burrough, an American naturalist and essayist, has noted, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” It is believed that children’s emotional and affective values for nature develop earlier than their abstract, logical and rational perspectives. David Sobel, a noted educator and author, has argued in his book ‘Childhood and Nature’ that we need to allow children to develop biophilia, their love for the Earth, before we ask them to save it. Nature is the children’s best teacher! Children’s instinctive feelings for nature are demonstrated by their attraction to childhood stories which are populated by animal characters and set in nature, for example Mowgli, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, etc. Regular nature experiences along with watching their elders enjoy nature can develop an everlasting bond with it.

In conclusion, children, children, and society as a whole, can benefit significantly by maximizing the childhood nature experiences. Nature-based experiential learning opportunities offered through recreated nature-filled playgrounds can restore love for nature. There is a hope that such rich, profound and ingrained childhood nature experiences will develop the environmental ethics to help children become the preservers of the diversity and wonders of nature!

(Dr. Pooja Sahini is an environmental neuroscientist at IIT Delhi and has authored several scientific papers on the effects of nature experience on mindfulness and neurocognitive functioning and Prof. Jyoti Kumar is the head of User experience Lab and teaches at the Department of Design, IIT Delhi. He has deep interest in Ancient Wisdom Systems. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online)


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