Let those angels get dirty faces


Children are losing out emotionally, mentally and physically because they never play outside, writes ALANA KIRK-GILLHAM

I LOVE the word “squelch”. It conjures up much of my childhood – blackberry-picking in September, Easter week in Donegal, summer holidays on wet and wild beaches, Saturday forest walks. Squelching meant wellies, raincoats, dirt and mud, sticks and rivers, rainy running and windy walking. Squelching meant barefoot freedom on sand dunes and wet sand along a shore, hot summer grass and mud between toes.

For a child, Ireland should be one big green playground, yet it seems increasingly our children are sidestepping squelching through our country’s glorious woods, beaches, lakes, parks and mountains for merely interacting with metal, rubber and man-made locations. They are climbing play frames instead of trees, swimming in pools instead of the sea and clambering over soft play obstacles instead of rocks.

Ireland has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, but also one of the highest obesity rates. With 22 per cent of all five to 12 year olds overweight or obese, the long-term impact on our health system has been making the headlines.

Less prominent is the debate around the emotional impact on our children of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and a growing disconnect with nature and their own back yards.

Earlier this year, the Irish Heritage Council published a worrying report which showed that while previous generations grew up roaming the countryside, this generation is staying closer to home and, in many cases, staying in the home.

The survey confirmed that although parents still regard the great outdoors as beneficial and 78 per cent of them said their children had access to a wild area, the reality of actually letting their children roam free in these areas is a different prospect.

Today, almost one in four fewer children play in fields or in the woods than their parents did; one in five fewer play in wild spaces, while over 40 per cent more children now play in an indoor activity centre.

Sarah O’Malley, a PhD candidate at NUI Galway who is conducting a research project entitled Reconnecting Children to Nature? A Sociological Study of Environmental Education in Ireland, says society has become more fearful. “Over the last 20 years, the structure of rural communities has changed [and there are] more cars and less footpaths. Prime time television programmes can develop a culture of fear,” she says.

Perhaps this explains the following sad statistics: one in five children in Ireland aged between seven and 11 has never been in the sea; two in five have never experienced the thrill of climbing a tree. The main reason seems to be reluctance on the part of parents to let their children play unsupervised.

Isabell Smyth of the Irish Heritage Council agrees. “Some experts believe we are now producing ‘battery-farmed’ children who are prone to obesity and not just physically harmed by lack of exercise, but frustrated with the mental tensions that arise from a world where the child is the centre of the universe rather than being inspired by the wonder of a world in which they are but a small part,” she says.

So does it really make a difference if a child plays indoors or outdoors? Surely play is what is important, and the same lessons can be learnt in a more controlled environment? In protecting our children from one supposed danger, however, are we depriving them of essential development?

Interacting with nature has been proven to reduce stress and improve physical health, attention hyperactivity disorder, learning abilities, creativity, mental and emotional wellbeing.

Computer games can be controlled and turned off. Structured play is time-finite, with limitations on what can be achieved given a little imagination. The great expanse of the outdoors offers a challenging and ever-changing environment. O’Malley says, “We are developing a risk-averse society. While there is certainly no harm in constructed play areas and computer games, they are not a substitute for playing in your own backyard, making things up and not working to a template of play already set in place. The outdoors cannot be controlled and playing in this sort of environment helps build self-reliance.

“Children need time to just ‘be’ and reflect. The outdoors gives them this chance along with a sense of belonging and understanding of their part within the web of life.”

And nothing can replace the feeling of the sun on your face, the wind in your hair and the snow underfoot, or a worm in your hand.

Sadly this is not just an Irish problem, and other countries are now taking steps to address the issue. The term nature deficit disorder was coined by the American writer Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. Blaming a mixture of parental anxiety, technology and less free time, he recognised that children are losing out emotionally, mentally and physically because of their increasing disconnect with nature.

In the US a programme called Leaving No Child Indoors is striving to address this, and similar projects exist in the UK where only 21 per cent of children play outdoors as compared with 71 per cent of their parents when they were young. Steps are being taken in Ireland, but it is organisations such as the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) and the Irish Heritage Council that are taking the lead.

“We are dedicated to raising awareness about how vital a connection to nature is for children,” says Senan Gardener of the Irish Wildlife Trust. “Studies have shown that children who have regular contact with nature do better in school, are more resilient, creative and happier people.”

The IWT (iwt.ie) established Badger Clubs to encourage young children to discover a sense of adventure and fun in the outdoors.

As part of their drive to address the nature-deficit disorder, they are hosting activities throughout the summer, and have also established a Badger Schools programme to help teachers.

Similarly the Irish Heritage Council has a long and exciting list of activities for heritage week next month (heritageweek.ie), many aimed at children.

Parents need to be wary in particular, say the experts, of letting children supplant the natural with a virtual world.

So rather than letting our children watch nature on TV, we should send them out to explore for themselves so they grow up with a sense of wonder not only at the beauty of a simple flower, but at the undeniable pleasure of a squelch underfoot.