A long day on the trail had led into a starlit night. Surrounded by the silence of the forest, the facilitator and the children lay on their backs looking up at a dazzling sky. After a while, the facilitator asked the children, “Isn’t it so beautiful?”
There was a pause, before a child said, “I’ve never seen anything so scary in my life before.”
The Milky Way across the night sky above the Indiahikes campsite. Picture by Pratik Mankawde
Unfamiliarity with nature often makes it seem alien. Playing in the rain, stomping through puddles, drawing on sand, letting beetles walk over your forearm, making mud pies, climbing up a tree, playing outdoors – will soon be relics from the past if children are not enabled to form a relationship that is all their own, with nature.
Hit by multiple factors like dry academic syllabi, parental disconnect from nature, urbanization, overemphasis on textual knowledge – children today face the serious hazard of believing that nature is something outside of them or an abstract concept at best.
Even as evidence mounts on the benefits of nature connection for children, the disconnect between children and nature seems to be rising. In the context of an urgent need to address this, we spoke to our team members, trek leaders, teachers, naturalists, trekkers and parents – asking them why connection to nature is important for children.
It helps them recognize that they are also a part of nature
“When we pay more attention to nature, we pay more attention to everything. We see how the dots are connected,” says Richard Louv, child advocacy expert and acclaimed author of Last Child in the Woods (2005). Richard Louv coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder,’ to describe the chasm that has developed between children and nature in modern times. He described this state of disconnection from nature as something more than “a diagnostic illness” – a condition that could lead to serious mental and physical health conditions.
“Urban children seem…to be taught to think of themselves and nature as separate from each other…” says Deepa Mohan. A birding enthusiast and avid nature lover, Deepa regularly conducts nature walks for children in south Bangalore. As a mentor of young children and grandmother of a 13 yr old and 9 yr old, her effort is to “reawaken their sense of belonging in nature, than to teach them anything specific.”
“Children are a part of nature. Not having them feel and sense that connection is like having a family and not connecting or interacting with it! When children feel themselves to be part of the web of life, they learn to value what is around them, and protect all of it,” says Deepa.
“When children see themselves as separate from nature, there is a dichotomy in how they view the world,” says Izzat Yaganagi, head of Experiential Learning, Indiahikes. “It is necessary for their wellness (and the wellness of the earth) for children to integrate with nature. Our work brings children back into nature or nature back into children’s lives,” she says.
A simple act of playing with mud or with snow, can make a child feel physically connected to nature. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
“This connection makes them more themselves. A child outdoors is very different from a child at home or in a classroom,” Izzat points out. “They are more joyful, curious, calm, and supportive of each other. Many have expressed that they like who they are when they are in nature. When children align with nature, they align with their true inner selves,” she says.
Though children have become disconnected from nature for various reasons beyond their control, they reconnect with it more easily when given a chance, says Aditya Bodke, Trainer and Mentor, Indiahikes. He compares the responses of children and adults to an activity that involves hugging a tree, during the treks he leads. “Children are uninhibited even if some parents may feel awkward doing the same,” he says.
Children demonstrate their oneness with nature in how naturally they adapt to “walking on uneven terrain, climbing trees or playing in the mud, when given an opportunity,” adds Aditya.
Whether walking on uneven terrain or muddy trails, children get a lot more accustomed to being in the outdoors while trekking, as compared to urban life.
It nourishes them deeply
During a recent trek, Ravi Ranjan, Senior Slope Manager, Indiahikes observed that a student was mostly walking alone but smiling throughout. When Ravi spoke to her, she shared that this was her first ever trek. “I am feeling so free, so connected with the clouds, sky, birds, trees… I am feeling happy for no reason,” she told Ravi. She emphatically added that, “This is something I was missing in my life. I will continue to do this for the rest of my life.”
When children connect with nature in this manner, they forge new connections within themselves too. Once established, there is no turning back from this relationship.
Families play a great role in paving the way for such relationships to form. Neelam Karnawat speaks of her daughter Sara’s affiliation for flowers since she was less than 3 yrs old.
While trekking to Dayara Bugyal, I saw 6-yr-old Sara from our group, looking for a “unique flower” on the trail. It was “a flower with four colours” that she had found and then misplaced. Though her “unique flower” could not be sighted over the next two days, Sara was not disheartened. She collected tiny violet, yellow and white flowers and pressed them into a book that her mother was carrying.
Back home in Pune, the pressed flowers have been framed. Sara has placed the frame in the “Dayara Corner” of their house, where stones and leaves that her mother and she had picked have been arranged. Sara’s other collection of stones from her journeys is kept in her toy box. They are taken out and spoken with during playtimes, says her mother.
Children become a lot more observant of the environment around them and begin interacting with it when they are outdoors. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
Research has shown that “when children (and adults) are offered sufficient opportunities to engage with nature, their creative instincts are strengthened and enhanced.”
And yet, families may have to stretch their tolerance levels to let children love nature in ways that they want, says Pooja Pandit, Founder of The Earth School, Bangalore. She laughingly refers to “the lizard hatchery” thriving in her house, and a lemon tree populated by “mantises that need to be hand-fed live worms.”
They lose their fear of nature
Fear of the dark, fear of lightning, fear of heights, fear of the unknown, fear of walking on dirt tracks, fear of getting wet in the rain, fear of animals – countless fears stand between children and a deep experience of nature.
Environmental Journalist John R. Platt reports in The Revelator that ‘biophobia’ or the fear of nature is “reducing our collective will to preserve species and habitats.” Quoting a study of over 5300 school children in Japan, he writes that “the less experience the students had with nature, the more negative their feelings.”
Platt writes of how Lead Researcher Masashi Soga from the University of Tokyo studied “nature-deficient children” to observe that “…children these days avoid even… butterflies and dragonflies.” Soga noted that a “cycle of disaffection towards nature” is passed on from a generation of nature-disconnected adults to children.
The article quotes another study of 1,100 students from China. Though the findings are similar, this study offers hope. It reported that “direct contact with nature helped to turn biophobia into biophilia” – an innate human inclination to affiliate with nature and other life forms. This term was popularized by the work of American Biologist E. O. Wilson.
“When you don’t know something, you fear it,” says Izzat. Children get many opportunities to lose their fears during a trek because they are facilitated to face a rich natural environment, she adds. During a recent day trek, when a snakeskin was sighted beside the trail, the children displayed much curiosity.
They were bolder because “it was just the skin,” says Spoorthi Shetty, an Indiahikes intern, who has trained in a Snake Bite Mitigation Centre. The sighting of snakeskin led to a sharing on dealing with snake bites.
Pooja concurs with the idea that adults play an important role in shaping children’s response to nature and its creatures. In her observation, children are intrinsically fearless and curious. In the Montessori environment of The Earth School, immersive free play in the outdoors is encouraged, caterpillars are watched, lizards befriended and playing in the rain is not disallowed. Recently a new student in the school transitioned from expressing disgust over insects to letting snails slither over her forearm, says Pooja.
Elements of nature become things to interact with and play with when children lose their fear of it. Picture by Vishnu Sivanandan
It makes them feel responsible towards nature
As climate change becomes more evident in sweeping heat waves, unseasonal storms and disappearing islands, the future of the planet is decidedly dubious. What might still save the day is if the youngest stakeholders of the earth are enabled to become stewards of nature. Outdoor play, gardening, composting, trekking, camping, animal care and other such activities could increase children’s awareness of the earth and nature’s cycles.
Lakshmi Selvakumaran, head of the Experience Team at Indiahikes, describes the organisation’s approach to bringing children onboard as nature’s keepers. Mindful engagement with nature during a trek is the first step. “You will not care for anything that you do not love or relate to,” she says. When children are facilitated to connect with nature sensorially, they experience awe. This paves the way for the meaningful conversations initiated about nature.
The relationship is deepened further through activities designed to make children reflect. “By the end of the trek, children experience that nature is not above or below them – they are part of it. And when we speak of taking responsibility for the earth, it makes sense to the children at a personal level because of what they have been repeatedly doing and talking about through the trek,” she says.
Nimish Geol was 12 when he first trekked to Kuari Pass with Indiahikes. 18 yrs old now, he has been on three treks with Indiahikes so far. He connects so deeply with Indiahikes’ Green Trails initiative that he hopes to partner with Indiahikes on an exclusive Green Trails trek for children.
“I saw enormous amounts of trash near campsites, on popular trails, and in towns…There is no proper collection system and disposal is left to nature,” says Nimish. He thinks that “encouraging youth to hike while collecting trash increases awareness about the problems we face in the Himalayas. It also imbibes a sense of responsibility for guarding the resources that we freely enjoy today.”
Richik Pal was 13 when he trekked Deoriatal-Chandrashila with Indiahikes. It turned out to be a life-changing experience for him. Not only did the trek impact him deeply, it transformed him into a green crusader who shaped how the people of Mumbai view plastic waste.
Richik Pal on this trek, where the lack of infrastructure for waste management made him realise the need to act on protecting the environment.
“Given the right atmosphere, children are very receptive to learning to care for nature,” says Suhas Saya, head of DIY Team, Indiahikes. He recalls a recent Himalayan trek when school children threw their all into creating skits on sustainability. Each of the presentations showcased proactive measures, he says.
Suhas compares how the children had arrived at the base camp – carrying packaged snacks and soda in plastic bottles – to how they left – carrying new thought processes about how their actions could impact the earth. That is how children exposed to nature could be facilitated to take up stewardship of the earth.
Ravi recalls a conversation between a father and son during a reflection session in a family trek. The son pointed out that the lifestyle choices they were making in their city lives were far from sustainable. Together, they arrived at some changes that they would need to make when they got back.
When children connect with nature while immersed in it, they get to observe nature’s workings firsthand, says Izzat. Nature follows rules: the sun rises only in the east; the seasons follow their cycles; animals eat only when hungry. By watching nature, “children could learn that rules can also be freeing and enabling towards a better life,” she says. Understanding rules in this manner can work wonders for teenagers who go through a strong phase of questioning rules, she says. Nature thus becomes a facilitator of transformation and wellness.
An abundance of research supports the idea that children benefit physically, mentally and spiritually from being in nature. If not for those reasons, the ecological reasons to enable children to make their own relationship with nature need to be heeded.