One of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live. We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world.
Robert Michael Pyle, The Extinction of Experience
(from The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland.)
What happened to all the children? I did not find anyone on my way here,' enquired my guest, who was visiting Rishi Valley after a gap of several years.
'Why? They are very much around,' I replied, somewhat puzzled.
'Well, ten years ago when I used to visit Rishi Valley, the kids would be all over the place, climbing trees and exploring the hills. It was a tough task to contain them indoors. What have you done to them now? Why is no one outdoors?'
Frankly, I too did not have any answer to this question. This was something I have been trying to understand over the past few years. From my observations, I notice two trends that may or may not be related to each other, but are worthy of closer attention: one is a sudden, marked shift in interests as they grow older and the other an overall drop in outdoor activities across the various age groups. Both these trends are of concern; I feel that the first need not worry us too much since the children who have had some exposure to nature and outdoors at an early age could be expected to recall these experiences at a later date.
When I joined Rishi Valley fifteen years ago, I felt that the location of the school amidst the wilderness and its rugged beauty would stimulate several students (and adults) to take to outdoor activities naturally and that I would get several opportunities to interact with budding naturalists and nature enthusiasts. But over the years my belief was belied and I noticed that while there was a spontaneous interest in outdoor activities among the younger children, this suddenly vanished after they moved to higher classes and especially after class 7 or 8. I could see this clearly among the group of birdwatchers who were so eager and were up early on Sunday mornings even when they had stayed up late the previous night watching the week-end film. Any one associated with the junior school would know how children love outdoor activities and use all the available opportunities to explore their surroundings.
The attendance on Sunday morning bird-watching sessions too has been dropping over the years and, of late, there have been days when no one turns up. Most of those who come for this activity are from junior classes and rarely a senior (above class 8) turns up. Even those who come do not persist beyond a few weeks. Until a few years ago, the Himalayan trekking programme in the summer vacation had students from the senior school participating, but currently it appears to be a 'class trek' of students of class 8 going to 9! I have been noticing over the years an increased tendency among the senior students to remain indoors, huddled together playing board games, listening to music, having a chat or just lazing in bed for extended periods of time when they could have spent useful time outdoors observing nature or just daydreaming under the shade of a tree, enjoying the cool breeze or watching the clouds drift by.
What is the reason for this indifference to our natural surroundings? Why is it manifesting itself with the onset of adolescence? While peer groups and socializing activities are important for children at this age, could it also be that the various rules and restrictions—all well-meaning, no doubt—stop students from being out and about the campus?
What we observe here in our school may not be unique. Recent studies in the USA and UK have also reported a drop in the outdoor recreational activities by 18 to 25%. Several reasons are being attributed to this decline. 'Videophilia', which is doing things in front of a computer screen or any other electronic gadget, is believed to be the prime reason. Many of the children could be spending several hours on the internet or video games at home. Very often parents do not have time for outdoor activities such as visits to parks or wildlife sanctuaries or treks. Growing up in crowded urban areas where the 'outdoors' are unsafe and full of strangers who could be potentially harmful, children are forced to remain indoors for a great part of their free time, completely unconnected with nature.
This could have several consequences. It has been said that early exposure of children to nature is strongly correlated with their attitude towards conservation and environmentally responsible behaviour as adults. It is known that in the absence of contact with nature at a relatively young age (before they are ten to twelve years old), the ability to connect with their surroundings could be lost. It is believed that a lack of engagement outdoors could bring about greater attention deficit disorders among children. It has been shown that children with a tendency to spend more time on computers are becoming weaker, less muscular and unable to do physical tasks such as sit-ups; they lack the ability to grip objects firmly that previous generations found simple (Denis Campbell in The Guardian). Increased obesity, loneliness, depression and lack of social skills are some of the other consequences attributed to children spending more time indoors with modern electronic gadgets.
In his very insightful article in Orion magazine, David Sobel suggests that apart from a wide variety of reasons such as 'urbanization, the changing social structure of families, ticks and mosquito-borne illnesses and the fear of stranger danger', environmental education as it is being imparted these days may be among the 'causes of children's alienation from nature'. He goes on to suggest that the reason for this is that very often environmental education tends to be quite structured where the children are not allowed to freely enjoy natural surroundings without being told 'not to touch' this or that. He suggests that children should be allowed to encounter the natural world on their own terms. For this to happen, they should be allowed to explore the outdoors without restrictions and adult supervision, allowed to climb trees or hills, catch things, get wet, go off the paths and trails.
He suggests that 'environmental educators need to allow children to be "untutored savages" for a while' and in the process enjoy their outdoor experiences. Secondly, there should be more hands-on experience and less formal, structured teaching. He believes that by learning to do a lot of handson work, children would be able to build up systematic knowledge. He suggests that for children between the years of six and twelve, being with nature is more important than learning about nature.
The Krishnamurti schools are all located in nature-rich locations and connecting with nature is one of the major thrusts in our schools. Are we using our beautiful surroundings adequately for hikes and outdoor camps? As adults, how we look at nature? Do we ourselves enjoy being outdoors or are we content spending time indoors, having no connection with our surroundings? Are we also unwittingly falling into this trap of treating nature as fragile and framing rules with the safety of the students in mind, thereby preventing them from freely exploring their natural environs? Are we being too systematic in our approach to environmental education that we leave no unstructured time with nature for our students? We too, as adults, need to change our mindsets about the perception of danger and safety for children when they are outdoors. Perhaps it is more dangerous to cross a road in a city these days than exploring the countryside.
We urgently need to examine new ways in which we can bring back the lost connection with nature in our schools and also sustain it through a wide variety of activities. This is especially needed in residential schools where children spend a greater part of their time in school and many such opportunities are available. This could involve relooking at the school schedules to deliberately free up spaces for children to spend more time outdoors and ensuring that these are optimally and profitably utilized. There could be nature explorer clubs which could encourage children to look out for things in the wild, with activities such as Migrant Watch or Season Watch. They could be encouraged to do hands-on work like photographing, sketching, writing poems on nature or model-making. Alternatively, several nature games such as treasure hunts and exercises could be held from time to time. Week-end camping or hiking could become more regular features of our schools. Very often children tend to operate as a group and rarely do they seem to get time on their own to observe or reflect on what is going on around them. Small groups or individuals could be encouraged to do specific activities like landscaping their immediate neighbourhood, working in the agricultural fields/gardens, visiting villages and learning about their life and working with farm animals.
More classes, especially those that readily lend themselves to the outdoors such as biology, social studies, art, and environmental science, should be held outdoors where students get a chance to explore nature on their own. I feel plant and animal diversity and morphology, ecology, soils, weather, geology, map-reading, landscape and nature study in art easily lend themselves to outdoor studies. With a little imagination and planning, many subjects could be better understood through fieldwork and observation.
In conclusion, there can be no substitute for outdoor activities and firsthand experience of nature in an unstructured way. Virtual engagement with nature (if it can be so termed) such as videos or the internet will not fully help develop the connection with nature since this tends to focus only on the visual and auditory senses. But once you move outdoors, you tend to sense nature in all aspects—through all the senses—smell, sounds, touch, taste and sight. The tendency to sensationalize nature in some of the electronic media, or projecting nature as dangerous, creates misunderstanding about the true picture of what it is to be outdoors. The immense benefits that arise from a direct contact with nature—both physical and psychological—can never be obtained by virtual means.
'Catch them young' is the most effective way of developing a deep interest in nature in children.
- Denis Campbell (21 May 2011): Children growing weaker as computers replace outdoor activity [http://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/may/21/children-weaker-computersreplace- activity]
- Michael Harper (16 Oct 2013): The great outdoors is largely avoided by British children [http://www.sott.net/article/267646-The-great-outdoors-is-largely-avoided-by-Britishchildren]
- Peter Kareiva (26 Feb 2008): Ominous trends in nature recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol 105 pp: 2757-78. [www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0800474105]
- Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic (19 Feb 2008): Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 105 pp:2295-2300. [www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0709893105]
- David Sobel (July/August 2012) Look, Don't Touch—The problem with environmental education. Orion Magazine. [http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6929/]
- Randy White (2004): Interaction with nature during the middle years: Its importance to children's development and nature's future [http://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/nature.shtml]
- Patricia A. Zaradic and Oliver R.W. Pergams (2007): Videophilia: Implications for childhood development and conservation. The Journal of Developmental Process Volume 2, Issue 1: 130-144. [http://www.videophilia.org/uploads/videophilia2.pdf]