New British Study about Nature Disconnect

A new study from Great Britain that appeared on the Children & Nature web site bodes poorly for children and their outdoor lives. According to researchers at Hertfordshire University, while most children are open to outdoor play, their parents are not, and a lack of confidence is often the reason.

Parents are overly fearful, the survey said. They fear cars, injury, abduction, ending up on private property, children running away, and .. dirt. From the study:

There seems to be an obsession about cleanliness. Perhaps because children are in expensive clothes, mud seems to be abhorrent.

What happened to play clothes? Are children showpieces? It makes sense to use inexpensive or used clothing precisely for play, to be dirtied and stained. Play is the job of children! Dress them appropriately and let them explore.

Another issue? Lack of map-reading skills. Said senior lecturer Debbie Pearlman Hogue:

None of the mothers I spoke to could read a map.

This is downright pitiful. As a result of skewed priorities and an extreme lack of skills, a whole generation is being deprived of outdoor play and experiences which, in turn, is going to render each successive generation increasingly bereft of experiences and abilities until we all just stay huddled inside our homes.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, says:

Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed.

Children now want more opportunities to play outdoors. Whether through pond dipping or tree climbing, nature-based activities can play an important role in the educational and social development of

England's Royal Society for the Arts points to a "risk averse" culture in which "youngsters were being deprived of the freedom to develop, to manage and take risks – and, ultimately, to grow up." Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to England - It's prevalent in the U.S. and in much of the industrialized world.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? A few ideas:

Make outdoor play a public priority by designing parks and safe, green play spaces.

Make outdoor play a personal priority by getting outdoors as a family or joining a nature club.

Educate parents about legitimate and unfounded fears.

Learn to enjoy wild spaces and trails as much as mediated, organized playgrounds and parks.

Dress kids appropriately for play and weather.

Walk instead of driving when possible.

Make friends with your neighbors.

Learn to read a map and kindle a sense of adventure about going somewhere new.

This site explains map reading and also offers some exercises and games for beginning map readers.

As an aside, I've always loved maps and atlases. I appreciate knowing the "lay of the land", getting the big picture. For that reason, I don't rely on GPS devices in cars. They remind me of driving through a tunnel, being told only what I need to know. I'd rather be armed with information and perspective. I fear that devices like GPS, while helpful, also tend to do the work for you, and that their prominence will only render people less capable of navigating their own, not to mention other, neighborhoods.

If kids and adults merely go out their doors and explore, and engage in simple map use and games, like treasure hunts, they'll find themselves empowered to use maps and they'll have a lot of fun. Look for treasure hunt tips in a future post.

Anyone have any other ideas?

Kings Norton Park in Birmingham, England: benkid77, Map of Twickenham, England: Creative Commons

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Comment by Suz Lipman on February 24, 2010 at 5:03pm
Juliet, I love your idea of an iphone app for nature activities! It is perfect in many ways. I'll send some ideas to you. Truly, I don't think this is emblematic of Great Britain any more than any other industrialized country. The examples in the study were just so stark and pitiful. Of course, that said, there are so many programs, groups and individuals trying to turn the tide and I think you're right about ways to slowly and gently do that.

Carolyn, that's a great question about "turn off the screen" campaigns. I'll look into it. The organized April one gives us some time to help promote it from C&NN. Perhaps it can be another "turn the tide" case -- that behavioral change/awareness over one week can lead to bigger changes.
Comment by Juliet Robertson on February 24, 2010 at 2:56pm
I have to say that there are aspects of British culture that I'm not proud of and this article flags up one such matter. Last week I was visiting a school which had huge grounds - a blank canvas. The nursery staff really liked my suggestion about creating a mud pit for children to dig and play. But the boss did not approve. The way forward is to persist positively and politely (well, most of the time): support parents and staff to get more children out more often, find the hooks that motivate the parents. I'm in the process of creating an iPhone app of lots of simple activities for parents to do outside... humming to snails and slugs, digging holes to Australia, undertaking worm attitude tests, etc. In fact, good ideas are welcome!
Comment by Carolyn Ross on February 24, 2010 at 12:04pm
Agreed. Does anyone have any stories about successful "turn off your screen" campaigns? The center for screen time awareness website has a lot of good information, but seems to be inactive right now. They say the next turn off week is April 19 - 25 2010, but I haven't heard much about it here in Ontario. Anyone else? This would be a great thing to promote in schools and for families.
Comment by Suz Lipman on February 24, 2010 at 11:13am
Hi Carmen. Yes, let the mud games begin! I love the idea of countering "dirt fear" head-on. A good muddy wallow sounds like great fun! Is the event up on our Movement Map at We'll want to make sure it's there, too, so more people can join in and celebrate.
Comment by Carmen Field on February 23, 2010 at 7:58pm
Here in Homer, AK, we've just planned an event on April 22nd - to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and Children & Nature Awareness Month - that is meant to help parents overcome their fear of dirt, in particular: Homer's 1st Mud Games for Kids. We're going to locate an existing or create a new muddy wallow somewhere in town and invite families to join us (local environmental educators) for a couple hours of unstructured play in the mud. We may get the fire department involved (for helping make the wallow and/or for helping to clean the kids after their fun in the ooze) and hope to attract a large crowd. Let the mud games begin!

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