Restoring a Connection to Nature
Part 2 of 2
By Michael Caduto
Spending time outdoors leads to unexpected encounters in nature, such as this sighting of a Great Blue Heron stalking its prey. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.
Many of today’s children are alienated from the natural world because they spend an average of seven hours each day immersed in the virtual world. This disconnect from the real world is accompanied by myriad health ramifications resulting from the frequent use of electronic devices (see this column on page 10B in the January 6, 2022 edition of the Vermont Standard). How does time on the internet impact childhood development and reasoning? How can we encourage children to connect with their surroundings and develop a relationship with nature? How can we help their outdoor experiences to become the basis for a healthy life?
Fostering Mindful Virtual Experiences
In order to live a healthy life in connection with their surroundings and other people, children need to find their center—that inner place where body, mind and spirit are one—a core identity which is uniquely theirs. How does a child accomplish this when bombarded by messages delivered through electronic media that are often designed to persuade that child to do or buy something, or to think or act a particular way that may, or may not, be healthy?
A child’s stage of growth is critical. Research shows that children gradually develop their second-order reasoning, or Theory of Mind—the ability to think for oneself and distinguish between one’s own state of mind and that of others (i.e. knowledge, beliefs, desires and intentions). This process begins at around the age of six and tends to become realized by a child’s ninth year. It clearly is not in the interest of fostering mental, physical and emotional health by exposing children under the age of 10 to endless hours of propaganda online.
Even when children have developed the capability for higher level, second-order reasoning, they need to be taught the skills necessary for examining what is behind the messages they are experiencing. In this way, they will be able to distinguish between what is healthy and what is not, and make critical decisions about what they want to accept or reject. With this awareness and these skills, youth can learn how to interact online in a discerning way that is healthy and proactive, rather than submissive and reactive.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Health Trust have issued recommendations for the use of devices by children, which includes texting, watching TV, using social media, surfing the internet and everything in between. They recommend the following family rules policy for electronic devices:
- Children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to TV or the internet, at all.
- Children older than 2 should have no more than 2 hours of screen time per day. (Presumably, virtual classroom learning is excepted).
- The use of electronic devices after bedtime and during mealtimes should be banned.
- TV’s and devices with internet access should be kept out of children’s rooms.
Nurturing a Connection to the Environment
Spend as much time as possible outdoors with your child(ren) while playing together and becoming immersed in nature. From promoting strong bodies, confidence and healthy vision, to inspiring creative thinking, interconnectedness and stamina—a multitude of benefits grows out of becoming actively engaged in body, mind and spirit when playing and learning outdoors. Spending time in the natural world reduces stress, enhances critical thinking and listening skills and improves scores on standardized tests in traditional subjects like reading, writing and math.
Expose children to nature through the arts. Share your favorite literature, music, movies, theater and artforms such as painting and sculpture. Research shows that connecting with nature at a creative and emotional level engenders care and concern. Children who grow to love the natural world often become passionate about preserving and protecting it. One good resource for ideas and activities is the book The Artful Parent by Jean Van’t Hul, and the companion website: https://artfulparent.com/.
Creatively employ virtual resources as a bridge to forays into the natural world. There are numerous online guides to activities and resources for use by teachers, parents and all guardians of children seeking new ways to keep children healthy and engaged in meaningful outdoor experiences. These websites contain a wealth of information on programs, resources and hands-on activities that help children to make the leap from spending time in the virtual world to becoming immersed in the creative richness of life in the outdoors:
- Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative offers place-based resources for homeschooling and classrooms: https://uvtpc.org/resources-to-support-parents-in-getting-kids-outside/?mc_cid=64a60dbddd&mc_eid=bfe589a705
- Chewonki Foundation has an extensive menu of nature and environmental lessons and videos for children and families: https://chewonki.org/at-home/
- National Wildlife Federation’s ECHO Resources page “…is curated to provide the most up-to-date reports, toolkits, research and other information about connecting children to nature.”: https://www.nwf.org/ECHO/Resources
- Four Winds Nature Institute advances “…understanding, appreciation and protection of the environment through community-based natural science education and research.”: https://fwni.org/
- Vital Communities Quests offer self-guided tours of special places in the Upper Valley.: https://vitalcommunities.org/quests/
- Shelburne Farms “Taking eLearning Outdoors” Adventure Series has ideas and resources to help children learn from and in nature.: https://sites.google.com/shelburnefarms.org/taking-elearning-outside/home?authuser=1
- Vermont Education and Environment Network offers a place to connect with and learn from others working in environmental education: https://vteandenetwork.org/
- Children and Nature Network: https://www.childrenandnature.org/
- Natural Start Alliance: https://naturalstart.org/
- Ecolibrary: http://ecolibrary.org/