On Nature Deficit Syndrome and how to avoid it:
“I want to climb the mountain with YOU Daddy…”, my 4-year-old daughter Zoe urged determinedly as I gazed upon the inviting summit of Herzogstand somewhere off in the bluey middle distance and mentally put myself on its summit. I was astounded; for the last 4 years we’d been trying to drag our 2 children outdoors on every possible occasion, often amidst a cacophony of moaning and complaints. However, with this simple request from my daughter, I knew that the old world order was overturned and that we had passed the first major milestone.
I was lucky enough to grow up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands and took the outdoor life completely for granted. We walked, climbed, cycled, sailed, beachcombed and spent endless hours happily playing outside by streams, woods, moors and ponds. Nature really was the ultimate freedom. I want my own children to have these opportunities and to discover the same sense of freedom and independence that I was able to feel as a boy and adolescent growing up in Scotland. I believe this is not only important but essential for development.
I recently read the “Last Child in the Woods” by American author Richard Louv. In his passionate book, Louv examines how the independence of children has progressively been eroded over the last few decades through a reduction in outdoor play opportunities fueled by concerns over litigation, safety culture and perceived risks such as traffic, “stranger danger” and potential physical injuries. The outcome of this has been to banish a whole generation to their living rooms (often slumped infront of the TV), resulting in what Louv describes as “Nature Deficit Syndrome”; a broad term defining a range of problems including low self esteem, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity and low emotional intelligence.
This really confirms what we all intuitively know; that somewhere along our journey to progress we have taken a few wrong turnings. Determined that “Nature Deficit Syndrome” should not plague my own children, I have been making a concerted effort to introduce my 2 youngsters to the great outdoors; to the woods and the wild places and to forge a connection with nature from an early age which will give them energy and strength in later life.
Tackling cultural differences and challenges:
Although lacking the big open spaces that I am used to in Scotland, Germany (where I live now) offers many positive opportunities close to urban areas for people to connect with nature on a daily basis. Scotland on the other hand, whilst renowned for its nature and “wild” landscapes has not always enjoyed such a good track record of providing attractive safe greenspaces for children close to where people live and work.
Take woodlands for example; for many years I worked to improve access to green spaces and woodlands around Scottish cities including Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh. In Scotland, this is still an uphill struggle and urban forests are often perceived negatively by Scottish city dwellers as being the haunt of undesirables. Perhaps this is a distant ancestral memory of a time when wolves roamed the forests of Scotland. However, the situation is often not helped by adverse media coverage which regularly portrays Scotland’s urban woods as threatening and sinister places.
In Dundee we worked for several years to change around the reputation of the City’s urban woods. Modest success was achieved; however, this involved the woods being completely thinned out to open up visibility and the installation of offputting notices at woodland entrances warning of police surveillance. Fortunately in Scotland things are now changing due to initiatives such as Community Woodlands and the growth of the Forest Schools initiative. Still we have a long way to go to increase public confidence in using their local forests near towns.
In Germany, the situation couldn’t be more different. Here woodland culture is deeply embedded into the German psyche and Germans enjoy visiting their woods with an almost religious fervor. Most German cities boast extensive tracts of adjoining forest or “Stadtwald” which is used by urban populations for health, recreation and wellbeing. In addition, pre-school and school children in Germany enjoy frequent “Waldtage” or forest days which allow young children to acquaint themselves with the woods from a very early age onwards. These visits occur with a minimum of fuss or red tape which would be quite unprecedented in more health and safety obsessed Britain.
We live close to the Aachen Stadtwald and can get there in just a few minutes walk from our house. The contrast with Scottish urban woods is striking. On any typical evening and in the worst of weathers, you can find a plethora of (sometimes comical) lycra clad groups industriously undertaking every conceivable form of physical activity imaginable; from nordic walking, mountain biking, pony riding, roller blading, dog walking and Tai Chi through to jogging (to mention just a few). By Scottish standards the woods are quite simply buzzing ! No wonder the Germans look to me to be fitter and healthier than their Scottish urban counterparts.
Cultural issues aside, getting small kids into the great outdoors is no mean feat even at the best of times as any self-respecting parent will tell you. I was recently asked, somewhat naively perhaps, why so many children are pushed about town in buggies (or indeed carried around for that matter) when they can quite easily walk. If only the world were that simple and kids simply followed along in an orderly fashion without being subject to a myriad of distractions ! Fine if you have all afternoon to walk a hundred metres. However, with 2 small children thrown into the equation, the result can be akin to herding cats.
Off road buggying – first steps into the unknown:
From an early stage on, we found buggies to be a great introduction to the joys of the outdoors. An important discovery for us was that our small daughter would only fall asleep (in the daytime) when pushed around paths in a pram. The rhythm of the buggy gently bumping along unsurfaced paths and accompanied by relaxing natural sounds, rapidly induces a state of wellbeing and calm for the child, evidence that perhaps our ancestors were nomadic by nature.
During the first 2 years of my young daughter’s life, I was working in Edinburgh and was consequently only able to drop in for flying visits on an intermittent basis. During each visit, “pram walks” became an established ritual. A wooded hill in Aachen, known as the Lousberg, (a couple of hundred metres high) became my regular stomping ground. Over this period I gained an intimate knowledge of the hill, it’s wildlife, history and it’s woods. Every so often I still came across new paths and hidden corners.
Although pushing a child in a buggy up rough, steep gradients might sound somewhat of a chore, there a considerable benefits, particularly to parents. In particular there is the chance to get fresh air and much-needed exercise, two essentials when confined largely indoors with small children. The senses are also heightened when your child finally falls asleep and then you can start to tune into natural sounds such as birdsong and the rustle of small voles and mice in the undergrowth. I walked these winding paths in all seasons; through sunshine, frost, snow, gales and storms. Every time the experience was slightly different and on each occasion I noticed something new.
We also found that “buggy” excursions could take us further out into the countryside. This provided great opportunities for encounters with “wild nature”. For young minds anything on legs is exciting. A trip along a farm track featuring encounters with cows, ponies or sheep proved to be the kids equivalent of a visit to the Serengeti for adults. This was a great source of motivation in terms of getting kids out the house. There are even several small urban fields in our locality where cows are kept within the town. “Going to see the cows” has been a great motivational factor for us to get the children outside in the fresh air.
Play areas – an apprenticeship for greater things ahead:
Another great resource for familiarizing our children with the outdoors have been play areas. I had always perceived these somewhat negatively as being the lowest common denominator in terms of outdoor play provision; dull, artificial environments with engineered attractions. In Britain play areas are often run down, windswept and unattractive places plagued by poorly maintained infrastructure, litter and vandalism (admittedly this is starting to change thanks to the good work of organisations like Greenspace Scotland). In Germany we have found play areas to be generally more imaginative in their design and providing greater opportunities for kindling small children’s interest in their surroundings.
The three elements which my children have found to be most of interest are water, sand and climbing potential. Play areas in Germany usually excel in providing each of these three elements in abundance. Sandpits are a feature found in just about every playground and these are often accompanied by a water pump which allows kids to get both dirty and wet. What could be better !
There are also plenty of climbing opportunities, usually pitched at a level that will challenge the different age groups. Sometimes these take the form of strategically felled trees which are left to provide a natural climbing facility on the edge of a more formally managed play park. Sometimes it’s not even clear if these are there by accident or by design which perhaps increases their appeal.
Scared wells and healing waters:
My kids are completely hypnotised by running water and rapidly become absorbed by any fountain, well or small stream. We quickly moved away from more formal urban playparks in favour of locations in the forest where we have found a couple of “adventure” style facilities. One of these boasts a well with a cleverly designed scoop which picks up water and lifts it uphill onto a trough. The children simply love this and could quite easily spend all day playing there. The contrast with the barrage of moaning and complaining that we are subject to when the children are stuck indoors could not be greater.
This is something that I particularly noticed with my young son. Before he was too small to go to nursery, I was charged with looking after him during the day for a period of six months. When we were stuck indoors his behaviour was quite simply impossible and he would rapidly become bored and disruptive, despite my best attempts to interest him in toys, books and games.
Consequently, I opted for a more radical approach and decided that the only way forward was to get him outdoors and into nature. We would often take excursions deep into the woods where we would find a quiet spot where he could play undistracted by a small stream.
The resulting change in behaviour was dramatic. After some initial protests he would quickly settle down and soon be completely absorbed in his surroundings, enchanted by small leaf boats floating down the stream or by the splosh of pebbles landing in water. It was clear to me that kids really do need to have the opportunity to play outside and that “Nature Deficit Syndrome” is not something merely dreamt up by a few scaremongers.
Freedom or beast of burden ?
An other useful accessory that has helped up to survive the first few life-changing years with children has been a child backpack. I bought one of these which was rather optimistically called “Freedom”. As anyone with children will testify, carrying around 10kg of moaning child on your back (and up steep slopes) is far from any normal perceived notion of freedom. However the backpack did open up many new horizons for us as it allowed us to make excursions into the mountains away from tarmac and urban infrastructure.
OK, it was hard work though ! My daughter achieved her first “backpack peak” when she was 2; a modest, windswept and heatherclad hilltop on the West Coast of Scotland with a view looking out across the islands of Skye, Rhum and Eigg. Although she had literally been carried all the way up and down the hill by my good self she was, nevertheless, very proud that she had reached the top of a Scottish “peak”.
At the bottom of the hill we spent time playing on the beach and investigated marine life in the rock pools. We have found that it is important that children are “unpacked” at regular intervals during a trip to allow then to play and explore their environment at close quarters. This allows them to make their own small discoveries as well as getting some exercise.
“Childpacking” Alpine style:
On later journeys in the Alps, in Switzerland and Bavaria, we found the backpack was again an indispensable tool for getting kids (and ourselves) out into the mountains. Our ultimate goal was not peak bagging but was merely to get the family out and enjoying the alpine environment. Often we would make use of gondolas and cable cars to get the tricky, steep bit out the way. My young son, Kai, could not get enough of gondolas and cried without fail at the end of each trip. There is a kind of magic of gliding effortlessly over woods and alpine meadows which particularly appeals to kids.
From the top gondola station, we would walk as far as seemed comfortable before siting down to enjoy a picnic amongst alpine meadows. This would allow the children (and ourselves) to appreciate being out in the mountains without placing over ambitious goals upon everyone. We could then take it in turns to go off and bag a small summit while the children played and explored their immediate surroundings. We even found that sometimes my son would go to sleep in the backpack as we walked along. With a bit of care the backpack could then be removed with the unsuspecting Kai still asleep inside. Ideally this would coincide with a stop at a mountain cafe and the pack could be propped up against a table while we enjoyed a Bavarian “pint” free from restrictions.
Trips in the alps have also been enlivened by chances to visit small mountain Almhuts (meadows) serving local produce. This is one novelty of being in the Alps which never ceases to amaze me and one which contrasts strongly with our spartan Scottish hills where it’s strictly a case of bringing along your own “piece” for lunch. Enjoying a relaxing lunch or a beer in an Alm Hut is a very civilised experience indeed. The children love to encounter cows grazing on the meadows and are thrilled to bits by the happy lilt of cowbells drifting across the meadows, an image surely straight out of the sound of music.
Putting food into the equation is rule no. one for getting children out-of-doors. Food needs to be there, tasty and reasonably abundant enough to provide sufficient incentive for expeditions to take place. We always take a back pack with a range of small treats and goodies which can be dished out periodically along the way. This not only provides encouragement but also a much-needed energy boost. However, when food becomes the dominant purpose of the day, care needs to be taken to avoid constant “grazing” with its accompanied gripes and complaints of “Mummy, I want this.., Daddy I want that…”.
Usually we find it’s better to aim for one or two more structured food breaks; that way the kids concentrate on other things they encounter along the way rather than pestering parents to distraction with unsatisfied demands.
Outdoor novelties :
Where possible it’s also interesting to find new and unique outdoor experiences for kids. Near Mittenwald in the Karwendal Alps we came across a “Barefoot Trail” which circumnavigates a mountainside covering a variety of terrain and surfaces, ranging from squelchy bogs through to gravel chips and upturned logs. The Barefoot Trail is accessible by an old-fashioned chairlift which makes a wonderful introduction to the day as you glide effortlessly along level with the tree tops. The whole experience is a deeply sensory one which enables children to learn about the natural world literally through getting their feet muddy .
Novel experiences like this tend to go down well with the kids and help to liven up what could otherwise be a fairly run of the mill walk. Wooden board walks are also a source of great interest and curiosity and demand to be explored further by curious kids. Young explorers can run along the boardwalks and pretend that they are on rail tracks (or “toot-toot” as my son calls it).
Climbing, collecting and creepy crawlies:
Anything involving climbing is also highly sought after by kids and can provide important opportunities for physical development as well as increasing confidence and risk awareness. My kids started climbing mostly in play areas where some excellent facilities provide a good introductory training ground. They soon progressed and are now keen to tackle any suitable object which is fit-for-purpose. Current climbing challenges include boulders and trees and stumps.
Just up the road from our children’s nursery is a small and long-suffering hazel tree. Each day, after being retrieved from the nursery, Zoe and Kai make a beeline for this and (often to our annoyance) commence climbing activities. Other kids also converge on the poor hazel tree and swarm over it like locusts to see who can get the highest. At this point somebody usually tries to be too ambitious and needs to be rescued amidst a flood of tears; however usually it’s all great fun in the end and nobody gets hurt. We also found a fascinating place in the Aachener forest where kids can practice “bouldering” skills on some large and unusual stones.
From our experience, anything that involves collecting, exploring or discovering in nature also tends to go down well. Last week, on the way home, I decided to make an unscheduled stop-off at a woodland car park . I was foolish enough to suggest to the children that we go for a walk. Obviously this went down like a lead balloon and I was immediately met with protests and voices of dissent.
The mood changed immediately however when I explained that, instead of going for a walk, we were going on a “collecting and foraging adventure”. Plastic bags were pulled out of the car and I suggested that we filled these with any interesting detritus that we might find. With this change of emphasis, the kids were off like a shot and soon our supermarket carrier bags were brimming over with a cross-section of nature’s treasures including bark, stones, twigs, autumn leaves, cones and pine needles.
Back at the ranch we sort out and identify all these collectables. Autumn leaves are great in terms of their potential for producing artworks and colourful posters. Last year we pinned all the most interesting specimens up on the wall and then took them down again in the spring when the new leaves appeared on the trees.
Conkers are also of considerable interest to kids. At this very moment we have several heaps in our living room ready to be made into something unusual and arty. We have also tried collecting and growing tree seeds. Last year we started with acorns, however these became saturated in the spring rains and did not grow. We need to repeat the experiment this year and hopefully get it right next time.
Creepy crawlies, including beetles, snails, slugs, worms, spiders and bees hold a particular fascination for my young son Kai. He is never happier than when he is watching bees busily collecting pollen from flowers or when slimy slugs make their way across the path in front of him. Dung beetles are very much the love of his life at the moment and he gets most upset if he finds one that has been inadvertently squashed on a path. The sight of pony “poo poo” being excavated and lifted by a dung beetle is a cause of ecstasy for Kai. Wood ants and their nests have a similar effect and are observed intently.
Birds and mammals are of interest to kids particularly when they’re close up; recently we (most surprisingly) came across a family of Siberian chipmunks in the Achener Wald. These were a source of great amusement and were foraging in amongst Himalayan Balsam (yet another alien introduced species). Whether or not species are biodiversity friendly or not is relatively unimportant for kids; some of my own best wildlife moments as a child were spent watching grey squirrels (a species now much maligned for its impact on native red squirrel populations) in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.
Elves, witches, music and magic:
It’s really important never to forget the magic of the outdoors. Woods for children can trigger and stimulate so much within the imagination. We go hunting for gruffalos and look for woodland fairies, giants and witches. We build houses of sticks and make offerings and magic potions to give to the woodland elves. It’s all great fun really and gets the kids to participate and scamper about enthusiastically with the latest project.
To make things work often requires adults to let their own hair down a little and to get into a bit of role play; the rest will follow on naturally. There is no end to the range of potential themes which can be undertaken. possibilities include woodland puppet shows, story telling, music, drumming, theatre and dance.
Despite urban lifestyles, I think the human psyche is still deeply rooted in nature and the changing of the seasons. So many of our fairy stories and traditions, from “Little Red Riding Hood” through to “the Hobbit” feature woods, wild places and fantasy creatures. We find our kids also tend to move a little faster when the witches and giants are pursuing them down the path; conveniently the witches (good and bad) tend to appear just as its getting dark and we need to get home quickly.
And so we did it !
And so I’ve hoped to show here some simple ways of getting kids out of the house and back into nature where they (and we) ultimately all belong. This shouldn’t be a struggle; it shouldn’t be about forced marches plagued by voices of dissent (although this may often be the case). It’s simply a case of slowly moving the goal posts further afield through time and inviting your child to participate at the next level of challenge when they are ready and able to do so. The role of the parent is to support and guide the process and to make the outdoor experiences as positive and entertaining as possible. The main thing is to have fun and to use your imagination. That way, being outside will never be a bore for either adults or children.
And so back to where we started. Zoe and me did reach the top of the Hezogstand on a still August afternoon last summer. After zigzagging slowly up the path for an an hour or so we stood on the summit gazing out at the sublime mountain panorama stretching off in all directions and across the plains towards Munich and the North. On the way up Zoe told me, “Daddy I don’t like climbing up hills but I don’t complain or moan about it at all”. A positive message of endorsement if ever there could be one !