Look, Ma – no laptop: kids click with nature
There’s nothing like a dose of nature to cure a child’s boredom – and to help adults see the world afresh
Rockpooling: the Saunders children with family friends on Sandycove beach, in Co Dublin, looking at crabs and other seashore animals at an Owls event
For some parents, and their offspring, the summer holidays seem to be just one long battle against boredom. Miriam O’Callaghan’s recent radio items on this topic obviously struck a deep and unhappy chord with many listeners.
This mass culture of boredom is a recent development. For millennia, most young humans never had time to be bored. Life was a constant battle for basic survival, often involving child labour and great hardship. Even today, far too many children still inhabit that grim world.
So it is a sad and disturbing irony that many of those who have escaped it find their lives unutterably dull, despite an unprecedented and ever-increasing range of entertainment.
Perhaps evolution has not equipped our species very well for leisure. Or perhaps our consumer culture, which needs us to be bored with one product so that we will buy the next one, ad infinitum, is driving this epidemic of ennui.
Whatever the cause, the cure may be closer to hand than we think. There is one vast arena, immediately available to all and with no admission charges, where everything is always new and often marvellous. But something, or someone, has to awaken you to its wonder or you may be unaware that it’s right before your eyes.
The natural world, with its infinite variety – cloudscapes, landscapes, the cycles of seasonal vegetation and migrations – remains almost invisible to many of us.
Out of touch
Today, even rural children are often out of touch with the most basic natural processes, partly due to changes in agricultural practice.
One of the staff at BirdWatch Ireland told me how he had brought a group of children from a small local country town to the Blackditch reserve, on the Co Wicklow coast. This is a restored wetland whose boardwalks and hides offer many opportunities to see spectacular winter waterbirds up close. The kids, however, found something to fascinate them as soon as they left the road. They had never been in a field before, and had never seen cowpats.
And of course, given the fascination of the poo factor for this age group, they were soon having a great time playing Frisbee with the dried-up disks of excrement. It had obviously been a long time since cows were driven to market along their local main street.
Okay, this is a less than sanitary route into the joys of birdwatching. But it illustrates something that the No Child Left Inside movement has been arguing for years.
Put children on a football pitch and they will probably wait to play until someone explains the rules, or at least gives them a ball. But put the same children in a meadow, on a rocky shore or in a wood and they will very soon be inventing games for themselves.
This movement claims that much of what we now describe as attention-deficit disorder is actually nature-deficit disorder. It laments the pressures – soaring academic and scheduling demands, overanxiety about security – that are blocking children from access to unstructured contact with wild places.
The pleasures of that kind of broad interaction with nature will be more deeply anchored if children develop just a little bioliteracy through field trips with teachers or local nature groups.