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.
Earlier cultures would be amazed that we teach our children to read books and screens but not to read the rapid changes in the sky or the slower changes in the plants and birds they can see every day, even in cities. Learning to recognise a dozen common plants or animals, or to follow the seasons through the changes in a single cherished local tree, can lay the foundation for a lifetime of enchantment.
Those of us who were lucky enough to get started on that road as children, often through the infectious enthusiasm of a mentoring relative or teacher, find that we are privileged to be almost entirely free from boredom, anywhere, any time.
But perhaps we adults, especially those most “expert” on natural topics, also need to learn from the very young, about the capacity for wonder before the ordinary in nature.
All too often, nature hobbies such as birdwatching (or botany or fishing or hunting) become fixated on the extraordinary, on rarity value. You sometimes hear phrases like “trash bird” used to describe a common-or-garden robin or blackbird. The cultures of competition and consumerism permeate everything: we label outings a failure if they that don’t produce a new species for our bird or plant list.
Identification skills and record keepings are among the pleasures of a life lived in awareness of the natural world, but they not the whole story, nor the first one.
In a provocative essay on childhood and nature in Aeon magazine, the Dublin-born ecologist Liam Heneghan, who heads several innovative projects around nature and culture in Chicago, writes: “We can see the world with our children’s eyes. Recently, I saw a father leaning over his child who was enraptured by a bird hopping on a city sidewalk. Mimicking his child’s enthusiasm, he whispered in his best David Attenborough voice, ‘I think it’s a sparrow.’ We think we need to inculcate in our children a love of the wild, but I suspect we misunderstand the direction in which instruction must flow.”
I think it’s a two-way process. And that should make the prospect of time spent with nature and children all the more rewarding – and never boring.
Child's play: things to do
Many groups across the country offer children routes into exploring nature. Some only operate in summer, but it’s not over yet, and you can book now for next year. Many others are open year-round, and offer programmes for schools:
Birdwatch Ireland, nationwide
OWLS – (Outdoor, Wildlife, Learning, Survival), Co Dublin and nationwide
Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club, Leinster
Irish Seed Savers, Co Clare
Loophead Hedge School, Co Clare
Vincent Hyland’s Marine Education Centre, Derrynane, Co Kerry:
Summer Camps at Dublin Zoo
Summer Camps at Fota, Co Cork
Sonairte Visitor Eco-Centre and Gardens, Co Meath
Birds Ireland/Courses by Eric Dempsey
Groundswell, Co Louth
Eco-UNESCO Children’s Workshops, Dublin
Irish Peatland Conservation Council Visitor Centre, Co Kildare