The power of Nature for children

Posted on: 2nd August, 2014

Category: Health & Lifestyle

Contributor: West Cork People

Freya Sherlock Lic. Ac, BSc Hons level TCM/CHM is a practitioner of Chinese medicine in West Cork. She is equally passionate about the nourishment of childhood. She co-founded and co-managed The Little School 1995-2005, facilitates the Parent Plus programme in collaboration with HSE and Dunmanway Family Resource Centre, trained in Early Years Steiner education and with Dr Tony Humphries at UCC but her four children have been and continue to be her finest teachers! She has is currently initiating WildChild Outdoor Education. For further info: 086 1273148

With summer upon us so magnificently, evidence of the power of Nature to positively influence children is bountiful. From infants to adolescents, the benefits are extraordinary, readily accessible and yet largely underestimated. As parents, we need to bridge the disconnect between ‘knowing’ something is true and actually acting on it, such that we embody the truth of it into our lives and families. While the recession may have yielded a sense of material and financial scarcity, if there is one thing we are incredibly rich in here in West Cork, it is Nature. And the one thing we can give our youngsters without any financial burden is a childhood rooted in that richness.

We all kind of ‘know’, deep down, that getting our kids outdoors is good for them. But it’s not just that it is good for them. It is actually vital for them…and for us too. However, there are different levels to this truth. On a simply pleasant and poetic level, we can wax endlessly lyrical about the joys and beauty of Nature and how good it makes us feel. To sit quietly in the arms of an ancient and mighty oak and watch the many creatures that live within its canopy knowing that in that moment we’re one of them, is a blessing. To “see heaven in a wild flower” or know the “one hundred smells of mud”, to discern the scent of autumn in the air or snow on its way, to literally hear the sound of ferns cracking open as they unfurl in spring or listen to a caterpillar’s mission to munch an entire leaf, to delight in watching sunlight dancing on gently lapping waves while breathing gratefully in that uniquely remarkable coastal air…these are visceral things that are free and cannot be found in a screen. Sure you can watch an exotic nature programme, but with virtual reality you cannot drink life-force into your cells in the way that you can when taking your place in the pantheon of all that is present in the Great Outdoors.

While the nourishment of being in Nature may be obvious, there is a truly profound level to this fact. Researchers increasingly discuss and debate the role of the natural environment on human health and wellbeing with particular attention to children. Themes range from documenting the physical benefits of spending time outdoors (improved immune function, resilience, fitness and promotion of optimal physiological functioning) to recording enhanced mental health, psychophysiological stress recovery , attention restoration and increased performance of cognitive tasks.

Meanwhile, modern phenomena such as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ or ‘Digital Dementia’ are emerging with concern rising as to its far reaching impact and why it’s proving difficult to reverse. In response to these trends there are increasing studies being undertaken to examine the tangible benefits of outdoor skills education with programmes mushrooming (excuse the pun) in an effort to catch this rapidly unravelling stitch in time.

In my own work, it touches me so deeply to witness time and again, the incredible and effortless capacity of Nature to positively and powerfully change children. Young children, bordering on an ADHD diagnosis, apparently incapable of maintaining absorbed attention and calm engagement with a group activity frequently transform into a child who can sit for literally hours lovingly tending to an adopted snail, utterly absorbed in watching it’s slow, quiet, gentle manner which somehow awakens a capacity for these qualities in the child in a way that no amount of Ritalin ever could.

Teenagers are not beyond the miraculous reach of Nature either. I work with an outdoor education charity that brings six to 18year-old kids together from every walk of life, background, race and religion for a two-week-long community-building adventure in nature and wilderness. There is an extraordinary alchemy that can occur when you put a random group of strangers together in the crucible of Nature with the simple aim of finding a way to not just survive but to enjoy two weeks of living together with nothing but rustic fire for cooking on, canvass dwellings, outdoor skills and goodwill.

To cite just one example (and there are many) I had a particularly eclectic group of 14 to 15 year-olds one summer, including one inner city lad who had, in his short life already witnessed two murders, another who was the son of a heroin-addicted single mum, so by default, was the primary carer for his three younger siblings, a girl on a considerable daily dose of Ritalin to manage her disturbingly hectic behaviour, a lad annually shipped over from the USA by his family to get some ‘European culture’ alongside a girl of Egyptian aristocratic descent and a handful of relatively normal (whatever that is) youngsters who found the hardcore kids a tad overwhelming. Go figure!

The first three days were spent flushing out their smuggled-in contraband (cigarettes and drugs) whilst patiently watching them strut their cocky stuff in attempts to assert pecking orders and laws of the jungle, until is slowly started dawning on them that the very things that defined their significance and rank in an urban context were utterly meaningless in a big open wild landscape where their survival depended on cooperating and collaborating with the very people they thought they were above. It’s humbling, even for a 14 to 15 year-old! Soon into the experience, we took them hiking some 40-odd mountainous miles till we reached the coast and set up on a panoramic shore for a couple of nights. It was an intense experience for them, encountering their perceived limitations and having to stretch beyond them, finding depths they had no idea they had, compassion and appreciation for each other they didn’t know was possible and a sense of awe and wonder they hadn’t previously known. It might seem far-fetched but several of these urban kids had never seen the milky way before nor knew what a real fish looked like (we caught mackerel for dinner one night and fish fingers was all they’d ever known). Wilderness therapy is full of powerful moments, like the hour I spent coaxing the innercity lad into the sea one night to swim with phosphorescence: so used to danger he was literally terrified of what this weird, dancing luminosity was until he eventually took the plunge, not just into the illuminated water but into Trust. I know it was a moment that will stay with him forever. By the end of the fortnight, these kids who had arrived brittle with attitude, rigid with emotional defences and stressed in ways that most of us will never know, were softened, heartened and renewed with a sense of selfhood and hope.

I have absolutely no doubt that if we were to lift that exact configuration of people and place them in a synthetic environment, doing similar activities but within the walls of a building, the effect would not have been half as dramatic.

The benefits of being immersed in Nature are physiological, psychological, emotional and some might argue, spiritual. It’s a one-size fits all remedy for many of our modern ails and is in my view, a vital element for a truly healthy childhood. It’s transformative, right outside the door and only a decision away. Happy days.


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