Growing up in Finland in a small town, we had a wonderful little forest close to and a big yard around our apartment building. There were varied terrains: stones and rocks, little hills and slopes, bushes, and trees to climb into. By spending hours and hours on that yard waiting for friends to come out to play, I had the time to learn the type of typical spots the wild strawberries would grow in, trace the surface of the rocks on the yard and know where most of the lichens grow, and to learn not to walk barefoot under the specific part of the yard where there were too many pine cones and needless to hurt your bare feet. With friends we played around in the small forest where we flipped a coin to help us decide the direction we would take and where we climbed the rocks and scratched our knees in the process.
According to an article on a Finnish News site YLE, a child´s social environment, friends and hobbies might have a greater effect on the formation of one´s relationship with nature, more so than the place of residence.
Following this line of thinking, children growing up in the country side should grow up with a healthy relationship with nature. However, according to the environmental educator, Mari Elonheimo, interviewed in this piece, the types of hobbies a child has and the activities the family engages in, influences the role nature will play in a person´s life as an adult.
Today there is a lot of talk about the alienation of children from nature. What with the digital world, the busy schedules of the parents as well as the children’s time consuming hobbies. On top of sitting inside, we spend a lot of time sitting in the car getting from place a to place b.
Enabling time to be outside exploring nature is of great importance. In fact, Elonheimo points out that in enabling a child’s relationship with nature to form, an educational approach is not necessary. What´s most important is that a child is given possibilities to explore nature. Only through being in nature and personally interacting with natural elements, a relationship can form. If a person has no exposure to nature, it is more difficult to understand it, let alone grow up wanting to protect it through one´s own actions.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to support this nature relationship, according to Elonheimo, is by transferring a parents love of nature to a child. The more nature has been part of a parent´s life, the more natural it is to transfer it to a child. This means enabling the time in nature, involving a child in activities in the natural world, such as gardening, berry picking, fishing, hiking etc. And rather than emphasizing the factual details, the names of the plants and birds and the like, it is important to allow the child to explore freely without needing to label things. Meri Elonheimo reports to have seen structural barriers to increase nature knowledge at schools, for example in holding on to the idea that factual knowledge about nature is essential. Understanding nature, i.e. understanding the necessity of it, will come through spending time out in nature and interacting with it. Although this knowledge enriches one´s nature relationship, it is not the most essential piece. On the contrary, the pressure of learning the details might work against one´s interest towards nature building up as one might feel overwhelmed by the factual details. And the earlier one can start, the better. According to a study, strengthening connectedness to nature is more sustainable when it takes place with kids younger than 11 years of age (Liefländer et al., 2015).
And though parents as teachers about nature to their own children is certainly a powerful combination, any trustworthy and reliable adult who is passionate about the topic, will work as well.
To enable nature contact, what is needed is not daily exposure to wide wilderness or breathtaking landscapes, although these would surely intensify the effects (Joye, Y., & Bolderdijk, J. W. (2015)). Nearby nature is enough for nature contact to form.
It is important that we prioritize the time to be out in the nature to make it possible that a child develops an affinity for playing outside and becoming interested in nature. According to the World Health Organization Report on Urban green spaces and health – a review of evidence (2016), “there is a need for both small, local green spaces situated very close to where people live and spend their day, and large green spaces that provide formal recreational facilities (such as playing fields) and opportunities to interact with nature”.
Michael D. Barton writes in Children & Nature Network about ERRAND TIME AS NATURE TIME: Finding a Way to Give Your Kids a Daily Dose of Vitamin N, and explains how he finds time in his busy life for nature in between errands: “One of my tricks for slipping in nature with errands is prework. Each day, I spend a little bit of time on Google Maps studying our neighborhood and our route for the day. When you do this, you should think about where you go to shop, run errands, drop off and pick kids up from school.”
This seemingly innocent and well-meaning activity sounds like it takes an awful lot of time. However, Barton makes the point, that we need to make nature a daily activity for children, even if it´s for a shorter period of time. This could mean taking the bike though a greener route instead of the car through the city. This might take double the time, but it accomplishes two (or more) goals at once.
If only we could bring nature closer to the children´s homes through parks and plantings that are made accessible and that invite exploration. It is necessary to let go of the fact that what is beautiful should not be functional. Where possible, nature in cities should be made accessible enough so that it invites people to interact with it, either through harvesting of edible plants, planting and maintaining, or by picking materials for play, e.g. leaves, stones and branches. It is a misleading message that nature should not be interacted with, but only passively admired. However, the protected areas, such as those in Belgium, where people are asked to stay on the path so as not to damage any of the forest floor, leave children cold. Fortunately, many forests in Belgium include a playing area (in Dutch, speelzone) in which children are allowed to safely interact with the surrounding nature. The next step then is to make the nature closest to us all more accessible and attractive.