Andreas Späth

Our kids need nature

2015-03-16 09:53

Andreas Wilson-Späth

My two teenage sons are positively addicted to electronic devices, as are many of their peers these days ( am I, quite frankly). Given the choice between spending a few hours out in nature and interfacing with one of several varieties of screen – cell phone, computer, tablet – in a dark room, they will invariably pick the latter.

As a parent I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that I haven’t done enough to make them spend more time outdoors. Is there much doubt that our growing emphasis on living in a virtual machine world for hours every day, reading emails, consuming online news, social networking and watching YouTube videos, is one of the reasons for the increasingly obvious disconnect between human society and the natural environment? And as parents, don’t we have a responsibility to engender an appreciation of nature in our children?

One parent who has grappled with these issues is British filmmaker David Bond. His documentary feature film Project Wild Thing will be screened in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and the Eastern Cape as part of the 2015 South African Eco Film Festival. (Yes, I am one of the organisers of this event, and yes, this is another case of shameless self-promotion on my part. Bite me!)

Bond’s approach to the dilemma of his own small children being more confident in navigating an iPad than the local forest is to appoint himself as the Marketing Director of Nature. With frequently hilarious results, he gets everyone from advertising gurus to trending hipsters to contribute to the effort of getting children away from their electronic screens and into the wild (or at least the park) for a while.

If you’re a parent who has been worried about this issue, this quirky and entertaining film is definitely one to watch. You can find more information on the festival website.

I’m the first person to admit that there is a generational aspect to this matter. Me being concerned about the amount of time my boys spend in front of a computer screen is similar to my own parents’ worries about me staring at the TV for hours after school, and their own parents’ dire predictions about the influence of rock ‘n’ roll and hippies. Besides, I’m spending more and more time “engaging” with electronic devices myself every day, and you should see how antsy I get when our internet connection at home crashes even just for a day.

And yet, this isn’t just some sentimental yearning to a past when children frolicked in the woods all day (which wasn’t ever the case for the vast majority of us anyway) – there is a growing body of research that suggests that children derive definite benefits from spending time in nature.

We know that exercising regularly is good for people of all ages. Studies have shown that that green exercise – exercise done in nature – is even better. There appears to be a synergistic effect: compared to exercising indoors, exercising in nature tends to be more effective in reducing feelings of stress, tension, anger and depression, while being more revitalising and energising. The combination lowers blood pressure and improves mood, attention and self-esteem.

These findings don’t just apply to adults, but to children, too. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last year, a group of British scientists compared the effects of “moderate intensity cycling” while viewing a natural environment on primary school kids. They got a bunch of nine and ten year olds to ride exercise bikes in front of a screen showing a video of a forest track. The control group cycled without this visual stimulus.

Obviously, the irony of watching a film of nature on a screen while exercising isn’t lost on me – let’s just put it down to science’s need for controlled repeatability and imagine what would have happened if they’d done the experiment in actual rather than virtual nature.

The results were telling in any event. The researchers found that the systolic blood pressure of the kids cycling while watching nature was significantly lower after the exercise session. A positive health effect that, in the long run, is commonly associated with a reduced risk of developing a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular conditions.

So joining Project Wild Thing’s David Bond in making it part of your parenting mission to balance screen-time with nature by getting your kids to do more outdoor activities regularly (hiking in the forest or bush, walking on the beach or in the park, gardening, planting trees, etc.) is definitely a good idea. At least give them the option and you may be surprised: they might just love it almost as much as their online computer game!

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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