While the surveys show that the great majority would like to see the living planet protected, few are prepared to take action. This reflects a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defence of nature have less and less to do with it.
We don't have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children's disconnection from the outdoor world. But the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.
The remarkable collapse of children's engagement with nature – which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world – is recorded in Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90%. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.
There are several reasons for this collapse: parents' irrational fear of strangers and rational fear of traffic, the destruction of the fortifying commons where previous generations played, the quality of indoor entertainment, the structuring of children's time, the criminalisation of natural play. The great indoors, as a result, has become a far more dangerous place than the diminished world beyond.
In her famous essay the Ecology of Imagination in Childhood Edith Cobb proposed that contact with nature stimulates creativity. Reviewing the biographies of 300 "geniuses", she exposed a common theme: intense experiences of the natural world in the middle age of childhood (between five and 12). Animals and plants, she contended, are among "the figures of speech in the rhetoric of play … which the genius in particular of later life seems to recall".
Studies in several nations show that children's games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and roleplay, reasoning and observation. The social standing of children there depends less on physical dominance, more on inventiveness and language skills. Perhaps forcing children to study so much, rather than running wild in the woods and fields, is counter-productive.
Dirt Improves Health and Happiness
While many times getting our hands dirty is frowned upon, the National Wildlife Federation's report—The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids—has some new facts and figures that may have parents steering their kids toward the nearest mud puddle. Getting a little dirty in the great outdoors—far from being a bad thing—helps children lead happier, healthier lives.
When we let our kids play in dirt, we're not only allowing them to explore the wonders around them, we are also exposing them to healthy bacteria, parasites, and viruses that will inevitably create a much stronger immune system. Many kids who live in an ultra-clean environment have a greater chance of suffering from allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases that we would otherwise be protected from through the simple pleasure of playing with some nice common dirt.
Studies have shown that simply having contact with dirt, whether it's through gardening, digging holes, or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child's mood and reduce anxiety and stress. With antidepressant use in kids on the rise, an increasing number of experts are recognizing the role of nature in enhancing kids' mental health. Dirt can even improve classroom performance.