There is something so absolutely delightful about seeing children play outside in nature, creating worlds and games together, using just the things they can find around them – branches, sticks, feathers, rocks, water – and being totally enthralled for hours.
Ask my children where their favourite place is: ‘The river!’, always the river. We often venture down to the river after school with a little picnic, or some things to cook up on a campfire. Our spot is in the upper Mary River – shallow, rocky, shady, cool – a peaceful place in the restored riparian zone of Crystal Waters Eco Village.
The children skim stones, rock hop, find bridges and islands, float sticks and leaves, search for fish and yabbies, make harbours, swim, splash in mud pits and smear themselves from head to toe, climb trees, build cubbies and create complex games. I hear their constant chatter and laughter, and sometimes songs. I notice how intensely productive they are in making ‘things’ for their games. There is real meaning, purpose, creativity and collaboration happening. Deep learning takes place in this play time. They love it so much they even ask for their birthday parties at the river.
Down in the river, our children have seen platypus, and occasionally the endangered Mary River tortoise and Mary River cod, and the extraordinary and vulnerable Australian lungfish. When we see such animals we inevitably end up talking about habitat values and conservation of riparian zones. We appreciate how this is the only large river in south-east Queensland without a dam. We discuss why this matters, and wonder what would have happened if the 2006 Traveston Crossing Dam proposal had gone ahead. These discussions find their way back into their stories and games.
In considering the impact of human actions on the places they love, children connect, they care and they explore what it takes to be good stewards. The negative impacts are somewhat troubling and painful – they feel it. These children then become voices for nature and speak out when they see injustices being done.
The impact of deep ecological experiential education – about the wonder found in nature – is profound, and so different from what we feel when we learn about the environment in the classroom, from books, from the internet, from films and computer games. If we spend enough time in nature we naturally cultivate systems thinking – ecological thinking – the type of thinking that is going to help us find solutions to the global ecological crises.
If children have a chance to truly connect, they will draw from this systems awareness and earth stewardship as future leaders and decision-makers. If exposed to it in their early years, such thinking – and deep knowing and feeling – will underpin all other learning, and become a lens through which they experience the world. Once one begins to care for and respect the earth and all living species, it is difficult to switch that off.
And research shows that this type of free play in nature is an immensely healthy activity – essential for children’s wellbeing and happiness. It helps them to develop the social, emotional and physical capacity and resilience that will serve them well as they become teenagers and adults.
Clockwise from above: Connecting with where their food comes from; Mudding up in the river; Indigenous culture workshop; Nature kids program at Baranbali farm; Spending time outdoors.
Nature Play Endangered
Getting outside and playing in nature all seems simple enough, right? Common sense? If we’re old enough, many of us will remember when outdoor play was the norm. We have wanted this for our own children. More often than not, when people talk about the disconnection between children and nature, they begin to tell stories about their own childhood adventures. However, unstructured outdoor play, particularly in nature, is sadly an endangered activity according to Australia’s Planet Ark.
Despite living in mainly outdoors-oriented communities Australian children now spend much of their play time indoors, and Australian Bureau of Statistics figures put the average screen time (watching television and playing computer games) at over twenty hours each week, higher if time spent staring at handheld devices is included.
According to Planet Ark’s research, a generation ago seventy- five per cent of children played outside every day, and now only one in three do. A tenth of children only play outside once each week; and nearly one in four parents say that their children have never climbed a tree. Screen time has taken over childhood outdoor playtime. And safety concerns and time-poor parents haven’t helped.
In just one generation there has been a huge shift in how children play, and we are now observing the devastating impacts nature-deficit is having on children’s health, such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.
When American social commentator Richard Louv identified the phenomenon and coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’, it made sense: we all knew it existed, but someone had clearly articulated it. Since his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods (Workman Publishing Company, 2005), a reawakening has taken place: public policy is changing, nature play organisations have blossomed, and the ‘children and nature movement’ has been launched.
Australian children are experiencing nature-deficit disorder too. Although this isn’t actually a medical condition, some paediatricians prescribe nature to heal physical and psychological issues faced by children, and planners are considering how to create more nature-rich neighbourhoods.
With all that is happening in the world today, educating for sustainability has never been so important. We need children to develop wonder about and love for the natural world, and to gain understanding and skills to create resilient communities. We need to refocus education to value ecological intelligence.
Ecological intelligence is the understanding of the web of life, the impacts our lifestyles have on it and how to live sustainably. Eco-literacy is the way to reach this understanding while engaging our heads, hearts and hands.
Several years before Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, I travelled to the USA to research eco-literacy initiatives and meet with leaders in the field. I delved into new thinking around ecological education for children and adults with my friend, systems thinker Fritjof Capra, and worked with Professor David Orr, author of the classic Ecological Literacy (S.U.N.Y. Press, 1992).
- Nature is our teacher
- Sustainability is community practice
- The real world is the optimal learning environment
- Sustainable living is rooted in deep knowledge of place.
After reflecting on twenty years of programs, the Center for Ecoliteracy has developed four Smart by Nature guiding principles for educators:
In 1995 Capra co-founded the Center for Ecoliteracy which developed a new educational approach to reconnecting children with nature, and working towards a sustainable future; answering the question, ‘What do children need to know in order to be good citizens of planet earth?’
In 1996, the Center also supported Alice Waters to develop the Edible Schoolyard program, the model and inspiration for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program in Australia, which is taking permaculture understanding to so many young children.
Top to base: Wiruungga Dunggiirr at the Indigenous culture workshop; Cooking on the fire; Playing in the autumn leaves.
Inspired to integrate eco-literacy thinking both as an educator and as a parent, I began creating new programs that weave eco-literacy and permaculture together in the context of a sustainable living immersion experience at Crystal Waters, where I live.
I run an Earth School for groups of high school teenagers, an eco-playgroup and ecovillage permaculture workshops. I endeavour to draw people into a natural and outdoor learning environment: in the ecovillage, in the forest and local bushland areas, in my permaculture garden; and also the school gardens, community gardens and university gardens I work with. Last year I launched the Young Ethos Scholars program – an eco-design and science extension program with an ecoliteracy focus; and more recently Nature Kids, a program of the Ethos Foundation.
Nature Kids opens and deepens connections for children with place, culture, nature, community and food. The children get hands-on and dirty; they free range with a group of friends, explore what a sustainable life might look like, and are mentored by those who love to share their eco-passion. I started Nature Kids to nurture a love of nature and to encourage children to turn off devices and head outside to play. I also want to help cultivate an eco-literate generation which will have a greater capacity to be eco-leaders.
Nature Kids participants explore indigenous understanding of place through art, movement, song, dance, language and story. They also explore ecology, habitats and watersheds, earth science, sustainable food systems and permaculture, natural building and ecovillage design, and mindfulness in nature.
The pilot Nature Kids program was at Crystal Waters. We know this place, our children know and love what they do here, and we wanted to share that with other children. These sessions have become extremely popular. Every workshop books out rapidly and has a waiting list. People come from all around the region to play with their children in nature, and the locals join in too.
Our ecovillage is a great place for the Nature Kids programs. Firstly, with no mobile reception handheld devices get put away. Secondly, nature is big here: in this valley you are surrounded by wild spaces, fresh tumbling water, forests to each horizon, big sky, incredible stars, amazing wildlife, the sounds and smells of nature; it is a full body experience. And thirdly, the ecovillage context allows children to see how people are exploring sustainable ways to live that embrace permaculture ethics: earth care, people care and fair share.
But of course you don’t need an ecovillage to connect with nature – it’s all around you. Children are naturally in awe of nature and, if left to their own devices, will create amazing games. However, it’s sometimes necessary to provide a little encouragement, and for unplugging to take place; and perhaps to allow some greater freedom to explore, and to let go of some of your own parental fears.
Modelling is a key factor: if parents and educators don’t prioritise or value nature time, neither will our children. Parents need to model unplugging from screen time too: putting phones away, closing the laptop and going out into nature with the children.
The Children & Nature Network proposes that the human child, in nature, may well be the most important indicator species of future sustainability. If the health of children and the earth are inseparable, it makes sense to do what it takes to bring nature into children’s lives and keep it there.
As permaculture designers, educators and gardeners, this is also a reminder: to embrace the wild spaces; to condense the areas we manage in order to leave as much space as possible for nature and wild spaces; to invite nature into your garden, make your food garden an edible play space, involve children in the design process and go on daily outings to the garden.
Morag Gamble, of SEED International and the Ethos Foundation, is a speaker and writer, and has been designing and teaching innovative eco-literacy and sustainable living programs for over two decades. She has a Master of Environmental Education, and weaves permaculture into all that she does. For further information see: email@example.com, www. our-permaculture-life.blogspot.com ecoliteracy.org, edibleschoolyard.org, kitchengardenfoundation.org.au, ethosfoundation.org, childrenandnature.org.