Kids belong outdoors. Give them some mud, a stick and a few stones and they’re happy. Through imagination, that stick will become a spear, a bat, an arrow. The rocks will be thrown, balanced and crushed together. The mud will go everywhere. It’s innate, but it’s got to be harnessed in the early years before they come to see the outdoors as an alien space.
No other animal separates themselves from the natural environment, either physically or mentally, in the way many humans do, and it’s that separation which can lead to seeing the natural environment as alien. It’s hard to instil a sense of responsibility for our natural environment if we don’t feel at one with it, and even harder if we feel fearful of it through lack of exposure or interaction. Children must first be bought up to experience their natural environment before we talk to them about caring for it through recycling, conservation or ethical eating.
It’s not just imagination and responsibility that interacting with the natural environment encourages. Tree climbing or using tools to dig improves strength which, aside from the obvious health implications, can improve the motor control needed for writing. Playing together will improve negotiation and cooperation. Growing and harvesting their own food will give children a sense of nurture and achievement, and will probably make them more receptive to new flavours. Along the way they’ll get stung, scratched, bruised and bumped, but they’ll learn about danger and risk, and which things to touch and which things to leave alone. Add all this up and you get kids that feel at one with the natural environment and are more likely to care about it later in life.
It’s not just kids that benefit either. Elderly, mentally ill, disaffected and handicapped people have all reported the benefits of being outdoors, and numerous programmes and studies back this up. I’m a firm believer in the garden being an extension of the house, not a space that’s tagged onto the front, back or side. Yes there are parks (use them or lose them) and wild outdoor spaces (same) but the garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is where it all starts. It doesn’t matter what kind of garden it is, front or back, grass or flowers, formal or wild, just think twice before you tarmac it.