When I was ten years old, our family would often go to the nearby forest, one that was close to the city and yet was a dense cover one could disappear to. My parents would pack some food and we’d walk down the forest trail, get tired and have the sandwiches. Later, we’d lie down on durries and listen to the birds, identify some of the trees, scribble in our notebooks or read a book. When we got home, I felt recharged in a manner nothing has managed to compare till date. It was like connecting to a higher force of nature and of being one in mind and body with the ecosystem of which I was a very tiny part of. Regular visits to a forest continue to be an important part of my adult life as well.
So it is something out of a Black Mirror episode to watch the current generation of children in schools get no sunshine, literally and figuratively. What is being dubbed as the ‘indoor generation’, a typical image of a Generation-Z kid that comes to mind is one where they are with their faces buried in mobiles and gadgets while their conversations limited to monosyllables. A study that we at Worldview Education did earlier this year strengthens this observation; it found that more than 50 per cent of children between 13 and 17 years of age spent an average of 15 hours every week on various social media platforms — this at the expense of unstructured playtime in the outdoors. Further, over 60% of the surveyed 13 to 17-year-olds said that they spent less than 5 hours per week outdoors.
Simply put, high-security prison inmates receive more time outdoors than our Generation Z (The UN guidelines for prisoners mandates at least one hour of exercise every day in the open air).
All this would have been alright if staying largely indoors hadn’t brought with it a host of issues. Research says children who spend time indoors are known to suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder that is detrimental to their health. Elevated blood pressure levels, obesity, lack of imagination are just some of the ends to a sedentary lifestyle according to experts.
Thus we need, now more than ever, to bring our Gen-Z to the outdoors. The benefits to doing so are immense; we get the bounty of healthier, smarter, imaginative children with better motor coordination and concentration skills, says Nancy Wells in her study ‘At Home with Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.’
From the standpoint of experiential learning, when we take children from the rigid classroom structure into the midst of nature, the child connects with the earth in the best way possible. One of the key aspects that we focus on through our Environment Conservation program is to shape the student’s understanding of environmental sustainability by helping them build an intimate connection with nature and by giving them an understanding of the interdependent nature of our relationship with the flora and fauna around us. When children appreciate this value and understand the small efforts needed to keep the balance in our ecosystem, they go on to champion one of the biggest causes in the modern world, that of climate change.
Surely, parents, teachers and educators have a huge role to play; of making hours in the outdoors as important a regime as sleeping or brushing teeth. A weekly visit to the local park, a monthly trip to the city’s national park and an annual trip to an area with minimum human habitation helps the child’s mind and body expand by leaps. Interestingly, a report by IKEA in 2015 revealed that children (7–12) enjoy hiking outside and playing sports together as a family, so it is a win-win situation for parents who worry about safety — to tag along and be involved.
It is also possible to incorporate green habits through a routine like gardening — not only is it a life skill but also adds to a child’s mindfulness. Screen time can be replaced with capturing wildlife or local biodiversity, a practice that further hones motor skills and observation in a child. And finally, the tiniest of changes like open classrooms and ventilated spaces do wonders to the mind & body.
In a world that is constantly shrinking due to technology, an ‘indoor generation’ may seem inevitable but there is a lot one can do. Education in its experiential avatar, the kind that uses lesser textbook jargon and more practicality and doability, has to take the lead in introducing the great outdoors back to our youth. It is the only way ahead to raise intelligent, healthy humans who understand the interdependence of all living things on our planet. It is also the only way our species will learn to adapt and thrive, just like the biodiversity we so need for our existence.