21st century childhood needs to reconnect with nature

Perhaps the problem isn’t too much technology – perhaps it’s too little nature

Apparently, kids who grew up in the 70s were the happiest. There were enough labour-saving devices that we didn’t have too many chores, but not so much technology that we were glued to screens. There was one TV in the house, no computers, and only the rich kids had a video.

Entertaining ourselves outdoors was the norm. I have vivid memories of being seven years old and building a den in the long grass of the local meadow with my friends. It was a perfect secret hideout to play away from grown-up eyes and while away the hours deciphering the hieroglyphs in clouds. I can still feel that sense of freedom and wonder.

Today’s children aren’t building dens or learning the simple pleasures of long grass. My own two experience high-definition nature through their screens, but it’s a struggle to get them to put the damn things down and notice the real stuff. I was teaching transition year students the other day – these highly intelligent teenagers knew the scientific names of all the parts of a flower when the diagram was drawn on the board, but couldn’t name a bluebell that I’d brought in to the classroom. I was shocked.

It’s easy to blame the abundance of technology for 21st century childhood’s profound disconnect with nature, and we usually do. But there’s more to it than that.


Neatly mown lawns

More and more of us live in urban apartments or on housing estates with neatly mown lawns and well-managed ornamental trees. Our public parks and schoolyards are manicured. The roads that lead to them are busy with traffic. Even our fields and hedgerows can seem off-limits, with their locked gates and electric fences. Where is the mud? Where are the long grasses? Where are the trees with the perfect boughs for climbing? Where are the brooks and streams with minnows and tadpoles?

Perhaps the problem isn't too much technology – perhaps it's too little nature. It may not be obvious when we look out of the window or go for a walk in the woods, but we are in the middle of a mass extinction event. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem, consider that the last one wiped out the dinosaurs. There is not enough space for nature – yes, even in lush, green Ireland – and not enough space for us or our children to get up close and personal with it in all its clothes-muddying, nettle-stinging, shin-scraping glory.

My 10 year old son can’t imagine life without YouTube, but many his age can imagine a childhood without frogspawn and the feeling of mud between their toes. Without dangling upside down from a low-hanging branch. Without a view of the clouds from the inside of a home-made den. My kids have parents who are both natural scientists, country people who understand the importance of nature and have dedicated their lives to the study of it. If we struggle to get our kids connected with nature, what chance does anyone else have? The challenge feels immense.

Mitigate obesity

We all know what there is to be gained from getting young people out into the wild. There are studies showing that it could mitigate Ireland’s childhood obesity epidemic and improve mental health. I’d also argue that it also increases resilience and problem solving abilities, as well as inspiring the next generation to innovate: can we engineer materials as strong as spider silk? Underwater adhesives from mussels and other sea-creatures? Solar cells that work like plant leaves to efficiently harness the sun’s energy? Evolution has given us the greatest research and development department imaginable. At a time when we need sustainable solutions more than ever, nature is our greatest ally.

Our children are the future engineers, entrepreneurs and designers, the future citizens, the future parents of our future grandchildren. We owe them the opportunity to etch those visceral, sensory experiences of the natural world into their early memories. Because while my son can’t imagine life without YouTube, I can’t imagine an entire generation of childhoods without nature.

Jane Stout is a Professor in Botany at the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin