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Does Your Child Suffer From Nature-Deficit Disorder?

10 July 2007

by Kevin Moore

In the year 2007, parents of young South Africans are faced with an ever-increasing demand to provide on all fronts. These modern day parents are burdened by demands to which their own parents were never exposed. Driven into the humdrum of capitalist and commercial endeavours our children have not only become alienated from home and what nature is, but also from themselves.

Scientists have identified a host of psychological disorders in children over time but perhaps much of this has a direct link to the fact that our children are today excluded from experiencing the wonder of nature that is needed for true psychological development in our youth.

In the United States of America, which is arguably a successful country on many fronts, 40 percent of children aged five to eight years of age suffer from obesity and 8 million children suffer from mental disorders of which Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most prevalent.

In his book, “Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv argues that many of the problems which children are faced with today have a direct link to their disconnection from nature. He gives numerous examples of how exposure to nature for children can have remarkable results. “Even without corroborating evidence, many parents of children with ADHD noticed significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behaviour when they hiked in the mountains or enjoyed other nature-orientated outings”.

Children today are often well versed in issues which are readily accessible through the modern medium of television and the World Wide Web. However, many of our children are growing up divorced from the true reality of nature and that which nature has to offer. In the richer suburbs of Gauteng, children seem to be more enticed by the fast track gratification offered by computer simulated games than to want to venture into the garden.

Sadly, it is often the fear of real or perceived danger in our gardens that prevents parents from allowing their children to venture into the garden. This fear has often nothing to do with scorpions or snakes but rather the ever-present reality of crime statistics in South Africa. In poorer suburbs, children are also faced with this threat but do not even have the luxury of seeing plants grow.

Gareth Samuels is a financial adviser on the Johannesburg Stock exchange. As a child (in the 1970’s) he grew up in a middle class environment. He recalls those days with affection. He had seven different types of pet animals and would play for hours in the park with his friends until his mom called him home to listen to Jet Jungle on the wireless. The radio session usually lasted only 15 minutes, a far cry from what most youngsters are exposed to today.

Sipho Ndlovu is a banker with one of the country’s leading establishments. He recalls how as a child he would spend his afternoons after school hunting for hares with his friends in a rural area of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Both Gareth and Sipho established close ties with the environment, which would balance their understanding of the bigger picture of life and enable them to achieve greater things in life later on.

The question that must be asked, is how can a parent today ensure that his or her child grows up without suffering from nature deficit disorder in a world that seems to have lost touch with reality? If one is to consider the down side of not allowing our children to get dirt under their finger nails and explore the wonders that nature has to offer, we should all be concerned.

Almost every great discovery, whether it was De Vinci’s ideas on flight or Newton’s gravity theory, originated from experiencing nature. Children need to play, and this play must include the opportunity to experience nature wherever possible. Parents are the primary component in enabling this to happen. In a modern world, parents can no longer rely on educators or grandparents only to fulfil this role. It is up to parents, even in the hectic world in which we live, to ensure that their children are given the opportunity to grow towards achieving their true potential through nature. Instead of taking children to see a film broadcast on a Saturday afternoon, parents should rather invest in the myriad of opportunities offered in urban centres such as zoological and botanical gardens. Not only are they cheaper, but they also enable the parents to relax from their chaotic stressful lifestyles.

There are also a number of initiatives by governmental and non-governmental organisations, which are aimed directly at providing environmental education opportunities for the youth. South African National Parks has invested considerable effort together with a number of partners to achieve just this. The Kids in Parks initiative has enabled thousands of youth to visit National Parks over the last three years and the Imbewu project, which enables youth to spend time learning from wise elders in the bush, has been notably successful.

Through initiatives such as these and the commitment of parents to assist in the development of their youth it is possible to ensure that the children of South Africa are not labelled with nature deficit-disorder but rather committed to ensuring the conservation of our precious natural environment towards their own benefit and that of future generations.