Kindling the wonder of nature in children

by Lillian Ireland

Presentation to the Surrey Teachers’ Association Convention 2016: “Changing Our Ways: Weaving Threads of Truth and Reconciliation Throughout Our Practice”

As children, Rob and I spent a lot of time outside. It was normal to spend most of our leisure time outdoors. We didn’t watch much TV back then. Television shows were black and white. We had 2 stations and the programs weren’t always available. Times were different. Playing outside was the norm for most North American children.

Nowadays children spend the bulk of their time indoors. A recent survey showed that prison inmates in the UK spend more time outdoors per day than the average child. By law prisoners must have 60 minutes per day outdoors in their prison complex for their mental health. Even here in Canada, many children spend less time outdoors than that. Where are we as a society that so many children would rather be indoors with their screens than outdoors?

Sure, society has changed. Some parents fear for their children being outside. Most schools promote screen usage. Many parents schedule activity programmes for their children in the afternoons while other parents “programme” their children to spend their afterschool time indoors frequently with a screen as a companion/babysitter, thinking this is healthy and safe. Let’s see where this goes…

Rob recently handed in his old flip phone and settled on a smart phone. Notice it’s labeled SMART phone. SMART implies intelligence. Scripted on the front of his new phone were the words LIFETIME COMPANION.  LIFETIME COMPANION implies permanent friend. Put them together – SMART LIFETIME COMPANION. Rob tried to get the words off the front of his phone but couldn’t. He needed to go to a telephone technician who spent considerable time removing those words from his new telephone screen!

Where are we and what are we allowing as a society? How do we want our children to be raised?

  • Medical data states that today’s children are the first generation in global history not to live as long as their parents.
  • 2016 data states that 424 million people have diabetes. Diabetes and obesity out of control globally.
  • There is now the concern of myopia, known as near-sightedness. This eye disorder has hit a new ceiling. About 93% of all 20 year old males living in South Korea currently have myopia! This current disability is more serious than previous forms of myopia impairment. The reason for this is because the children’s eyes didn’t develop properly. Much of their time was spent indoors in front of a screen. Their eyes didn’t have the long distance viewing opportunities nor enough natural light to develop properly. In young children, when the window of time for optimum eye development is gone, it’s gone. This new endemic tragedy is slowly being recognized in other countries.
  • New legislation in Taiwan states that parents can be charged with child abuse if they allow their children to spend excessive time in front of a screen.
  • The prestigious Sydney Grammar School in Australia, which had schooled 3 of its earlier prime ministers, recently banned screens from their regular teaching in classrooms.

The world is slowly recognizing the serious cost of too much time with screens indoors. In Canada, we too place strong emphasis on academics, and we are also realising the serious price of too little time outdoors. But, many of us in Canada are addicted to our screens. Most of us feel completely lost without our phones!

Remember SMART (phone) LIFETIME COMPANION (phone)? Well, phones aren’t friends and they are not SMART!

How can we encourage children to disengage from the tech world and reengage with outdoors? If we can’t, how do we expect our children to do that?

Eight years ago I used a computer, like most of us, for facts and information, as a diversion when I had a small block of free time, and connecting with others. I’m sure you can add to the list of “why” you enjoy the internet: games, connections, news, etc. I decided to try to walk in the footsteps of an uncle. I tried to have a life without a computer or screen. I actually went into withdrawal and couldn’t believe it. Still, I stuck with my decision to get “unhooked”, even though I was very frustrated thinking some of my social life would evaporate. But I stuck it out for a year. After a few weeks of yearning to get back on my computer, the feeling went away and I lived without the internet for a year. Looking back, it certainly taught me a few things. I could take control of it, rather than technology controlling me.

The relative I was trying to emulate was an uncle, a 75 year old Albertan farmer who not only manages 70 head of cattle singlehandedly plus grain crops on several quarters of land. He’s also the local president of an organization which helps farmers whose land has been contaminated by the oil industry. There are many multi-million dollar lawsuits pending against the industry in Alberta, and he helps bring support and awareness to the farmers and their families. He does all this without a computer. How he does it is amazing! His focus hasn’t been lost or dribbled away by hours of time spent in front of a screen. And he actually lives in relative peace since he spends much of his time outdoors.

I saw that I had been addicted to my screen. And I also see it in children and their parents today.

Today’s screen activities are built to entice and hook. Game designers look for ways to make their games more interesting so as to increase the amount of time people will spend playing them. Games are designed to be just difficult enough to be truly challenging, while allowing players to achieve small accomplishments that compel them to keep playing. In that respect, the design of screen games is similar to the design of gambling casinos which allow players to have small “wins” that entice them to keep playing. Some of the hooks which coerce us into playing are:

  • A high score (wow! look at my score!).
  • Beating the game (beating the computer, yeah! I’m smart, I beat the computer. Now, can I do it again?).
  • Role playing – forms an emotional attachment to the character and the story, which makes it that much harder to stop playing.
  • Discovery – where a good part of the game is spent exploring imaginary worlds. The thrill of discovery, even of places that don’t really exist, can be extremely compelling. Game designers know that discovery is a necessary element in human development.
  • Relationships – these built during some games give children and adults virtual relationships or communities where, for some, these communities become the place where they’re most accepted, which naturally draws them back again and again.
  • Power and control – the sophistication built into many games is intended to give the player ultimate power and control. Yet many players struggle to differentiate between the virtual and the real world, especially when much of their day is steeped and spent in the virtual world of games.
  • Some very popular games purposely do not end. An example of a highly successfully addictive game is Minecraft. The game never ends. In nearly everything we do in life, we have a need for closure, but this game purposely doesn’t have closure, so children (and adults) are continually striving, building, etc. until hours have passed without a sense of completion.

Some people are more prone to addictions through games or otherwise. Children with short attention spans, those who spend little time with family or friends, and those who feel like outcasts or tend toward sensation-seeking are more easily drawn into game addictions because the games fill a hole and satisfy needs that aren’t met elsewhere.

Another factor that’s concerning is that violence in games is rewarded. In some army and sniper games, the players go up a level or gain power depending on how many players they kill. They are rewarded for eliminating other players. This gives a profound false sense of power and control.

Passively watching violence on TV is already bad enough, whereas in many computer games the child is committing the violence themselves. This type of active participation affects a child’s thought patterns. If played often enough, games like this distort a child’s perception of reality and violence, causing serious changes in their thinking, their behavior and their need to control. It’s not surprising to see that children’s behavior often becomes more hostile after playing.

In addition to psychological addiction, it’s now believed that there may be a physiological element to addictive game playing. Researchers at Hammersmith Hospital in London conducted a study in 2005 which found that dopamine levels in player’s brains doubled while they were playing. Dopamine is a mood-regulating hormone associated with feelings of pleasure. The findings of this study indicated that gaming could actually be chemically addictive. Though the debate continues as to whether gaming addiction is a diagnosable disorder, the behavior undeniably exists. The combination of intentional programming by designers and the predisposition some people have to addictive behavior means this is a real issue that educators and parents need to be aware of, need to address and take action to prevent.

Lastly, how many of you have heard of Nutella? Everybody, right? One jar is sold globally every 2.5 seconds. What’s the connection? Sugar! Sugar is addictive, cocoa is addictive, Nutella is addictive! Believe it or not, one of the most popular games on the market today includes Nutella in the game.

Within the past month two young children we know got the book Swampy’s Lovely Book which is all about Minecraft. Innocent enough, but on the inside front and back covers are pictures of over 300 small cakes! There’s also a 4 page recipe for children to make a cake. The recipe calls for a total of 5½ cups of sugar plus a jar of jam. Yes, 5½ cups of sugar for 1 cake! The Minecraft book strongly promotes sugar. There’s even a math graph in the book which says “The more cake you eat, the greater your level of happiness!” This book is geared towards young elementary aged children and sold through the Scholastic Book sales in many BC schools for fundraising.img03

Two years ago we visited a young boy in Vancouver Children’s Hospital. He was admitted because of serious behavioural challenges. When we arrived at the hospital , he was sitting on the floor crying and pleading with the nurses for Nutella. He was begging for “his Nutella.” We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. He was seriously addicted to Nutella and going through withdrawal. He was also addicted to screen games, especially Minecraft.

When he was at home getting him off the computer was extremely difficult. At home he ruled the family, and he was just 10. The pediatric psychiatrist told his parents that he was to stay away from all screens and off all sugar. The doctor was very concerned about his future, predicting that if he didn’t have a complete and immediate change in his life, he would spend much of his older life in jail. His addictions to games, their violence and sugar had completely changed his personality and his brain chemistry. His addictions were destroying any potential of a healthy future, so a major change had to happen for his sake and the sake of his family. This young 10 year-old boy is a close relative.

Safety is near the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This boy would do anything to control his environment, which is what he “had to learn to do” in many of the games he played. He couldn’t differentiate between virtual and real life. Many of the games do not have scripted, assigned rules, so you learn “how” to play “as” you play, which reinforces the inherent addictive structures of the games. It reinforces the “need” to keep playing. There was little distinction between his real and virtual worlds.

This sadly is common for many children who are exposed to screen games from a young age. When they are young, their brains can’t differentiate between the need to be safe and the need to control. Because his brain was so changed from what he “played” in the games and his addiction to Nutella, he was suffering many severe behavioural challenges and could not continue regular school. He’s now in a special boarding school with children who have similar severe problems. Rules are clear and strict, and there is no sugar nor screens of any kind. It’s back to the basics. The students are weaned away from their debilitating need to control everything and everybody around them. Authority lies unquestionably with the staff. The first 3 days of each term are spent living outdoors, hiking long distances and learning to connect and rely on others. They form real relationships in the real world, not virtual relationships where control is paramount.

Even though we shared our concerns with his parents for several years, they never thought it would come to this. Many parents don’t have or make the time to sit with their children to see what they are playing, assuming it’s all safe, since other children are playing the same games. Many parents are also burned out from arguing with their children and give in, not realizing the connection nor how the addiction was brought about in the first place.

Since our presentation in May 2016 several other parents have told us similar stories of their own young children or children they know who have also needed specialized intervention, including hospitalization due to their addictions to screen games and sugar.

Over the years, I have provided childcare for various aged children in different communities. There isn’t a home I go into where there’s not a bottle of Nutella sitting in or on the cupboard. One bright young child whom I’ve supported refuses anything but Nutella sandwiches for breakfast. The addiction is already evident. And – the favourite game is (you guessed it) Minecraft!

I remember one Friday talking about the family’s upcoming weekend and all the excitement leading up to it. I was expecting to hear about a special event, maybe seeing someone special, a trip, etc. but found out it was an all-day Minecraft marathon. Was I surprised? Yes, but maybe I shouldn’t have been!

In the home, do you think I was going to buckle and allow screen activities when we were together? No way! We locked horns, but I realized if there was any hope for helping, I had to stick to my resolve which I did. We read books, did homework and played child-appropriate games together. It took several months to encourage outside play at a nearby park. When there was final agreement to going there, was I grateful! The parents saw what pleasure it brought their child, so they began having family outings there. That breakthrough made my year! All it took was outside eyes to see what was going on and dogged grit to help move the child beyond the compulsiveness of screen games.

Our country isn’t the only one that has this dilemma. Remember, 1 jar of Nutella is sold every 2.5 seconds globally and Minecraft uses Nutella as a reward in the game. And, as of 2014, Minecraft was the third most popular game of all time.

Where are we going as a society and how can we responsibly raise children in this techno-addicted, sugar-addicted world? The answer lies in looking outside – literally!

Rob and I spend much of our lives enjoying time outdoors. All seasons! One favorite memory was camping above the Arctic Circle 10 years ago. The power of nature was nearly overwhelming as the storm bellowed around our tent. The wind was like a freight train pounding in a way we had never experienced before, it was awesome! We couldn’t hear each other’s voices even though we were inches from each other’s face! It was an amazing experience!

Memories like that linger and elicit awe. Yes, we were awestruck! Awe has a special place in human experience! Awe is a special emotion which reinforces intelligence which, unfortunately, game designers capitalize on.

We need to work extra hard to share with children the awe-inspiring attractions of real life. The natural world is full of them.

Today, how can we get children to become passionate about nature? If we are passionate, our students will see that and it will rub off on them. We, as educators and parents have both the privilege and the responsibility to make this connection for them. What we care about rubs off on our students. If this new generation feels connected to nature, they’ll respect it. Rob and I witness the tide turning, and so can you with your students. We don’t take it lightly. We consider it a privilege to walk alongside children as we point out small yet significant things to them.

Recently, at an elementary school, I was waiting for a young student after school. She was playing with a few classmates in the field but said she was bored. I seized the opportunity and showed her and her friends the new growth on one of the trees: the color, the texture and the incredible scent. They were amazed! They spent the next 1/2 hour with new eyes, looking at and playing under the trees. The next day, they ran to the trees and looked again, pulling some of the new growth off wanting to plant it. By pointing small things out to them about the trees, they felt a connection. All we need to do is show some type of a link to nature either with our senses or with facts. As educators and/or parents, we can go beyond example and actually design activities which help children connect with nature.

Indigenous people historically know our intrinsic connection with nature and its sacredness. What we have learned from them, we are honoured to share with you. The Dene, who we met in the north, hug completely opposite than we do here in the south. Most of us, when we hug, hug from our right side to the right side of the other person. The Dene hug on the left. After a few bumped noses, I asked why they hugged on the left side. They said when one hugs, it’s done heart to heart. They also understand the importance of seasons and respect how life is affected by our eternal connection to nature.

Sadly, many of today’s children and adults think differently and don’t feel their inherent connection to the outdoors. But, by sharing true yet unusual facts about animals and nature with children, they become intrigued and fascinated. Many adults are fascinated as well. We engage children with unusual facts which we ourselves find truly awesome.

When Rob and I began studying animals and their behaviours, we were spellbound and continue to be and hope you are too. For example, some hares run much faster than a moose can. Hares can run up to 70 km per hour, whereas moose run about 50 km per hour. Both rabbit and coyote mothers pull hairs from their chests to pad the area where their young will be born. One ladybug can lay up to 1000 eggs in a lifetime and they also turn over and play dead when they’re scared. Female sea otters carry their young on their chest for many months as they travel around the ocean. They hold paws when they’re sleeping. They also have small pouches of skin in both armpits and usually keep a small rock in their left armpit to use as a tool for breaking clams open. A bald eagle can dive between 200 km and 300 km per hour. It can spot a rabbit 2 miles away. When it’s flying, if a feather drops from its left wing, a feather will automatically drop from its right wing to keep it balanced in flight.

The natural world around us is rich with wonder. We have showed children how to make bird calls out of grass. Students ran up to us afterwards wanting to know exactly how it was done. Many children yearn to have some connection with nature and we, as parents and educators, can help them build that connection. Even principals remembered making bird calls out of grass as children, but hadn’t seen anyone doing it for years.

We ask you, as educators to spend time outdoors and encourage children to do the same. We’ve been impressed with a few teachers who plan some of their class time outside in the playground, simply going outside and paying attention to what’s there with their students.

Nature teaches us that some things can be controlled whereas other things can’t. Children don’t have to be in charge. Kids don’t need to shoot or build or exterminate in order to have control. In nature, cooperation and communication are essential for survival. Basic life skills and time for reflection are important.

By spending time outside, people realize they are capable of thriving in multiple environments, without the trappings of TV, screen games and other distractions. They learn to appreciate what is simple, what is complex, and what is real.

The David Suzuki Foundation has a challenge program for all Canadians. It’s called the 30×30 Challenge. It encourages us to spend just 30 minutes outside each day for 30 days. Remember, this is only ½ of what prisoners in the United Kingdom are mandated to do for their best mental health.

Rob and I encourage each of you to reconnect with nature by spending half an hour outdoors each day where you see, smell, feel, hear, touch and sense what’s actually there. As we ourselves reengage with the outdoors, this will rub off on our students and they too can appreciate the beauty, the awe and the healing power of nature. We hope they will grow to be healthy, caring citizens who love nature and are committed to protect it.

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2 comments

  • I love this article because I enjoyed the outdoors as a child and also carried that onto my children who now as young adults spend a lot of time in nature. I teach art classes at Choice School in Richmond, BC and I chose Nature as my theme for this school year. I bring the students outside as often as I can and have developed lesson plans that includes foraging, rubbings, observation of natural objects for their pictures. I know how important nature is to all of us and try to encourage outdoor exploration and observation.
    My personal artwork always has a connection to nature.

    • Way to go Cathy! Your students are fortunate to have your wise leadership in their formative years. They too will likely carry these nature lessons forward. Thank you for sharing your kind thoughts!

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