Controversy over nature deficit disorder in children

I was on a train yesterday morning so missed the debate on the BBC's Today programme regarding a new report written for the National Trust by Stephen Moss. His fellow Guardian writer Aleks Krotoski had criticised the report the same day, and so Today brought them together to debate the topic. I knew nothing about this until this morning when I saw a tweet from Matt Edgar referring the programme to my work on geeks going camping. In truth, I found myself agreeing with both of them.

I empathise with Aleks' irritation at what she seemed to see as the same old same old technophobia, and I agree when she writes 

It is absolutely natural that the uncertainty that surrounds the behavioural transformations of our evolving relationship with screen-based media is confusing and fear-inducing. As with anything new, we are in a period of furious social scrutiny as we re-negotiate the boundaries of our relationship with the machine.

Her main complaint in this case is that the research behind Moss's report is not scientific enough. Although I've read some of Louv's writings I don't know enough about his work to agree or disagree on that.

But I do agree with Stephen Moss that contact with nature is vitally important for children. Indeed I would go further and suggest it is important for all of us. I sympathise with the comment from Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, when she says 

That’s why it’s so worrying that so many children today don’t have the opportunity to experience the outdoors and nature. Building a den, picking flowers, climbing trees – the outdoors is a treasure trove, rich in imagination. It brings huge benefits that we believe every child should have the opportunity to experience.  And there are huge costs when they don‘t.

However, there is no need for the two sides to be at loggerheads with each other. As Krotoski says, our relationship with screen-based media is evolving. And that evolution is taking a very interesting turn because biophilia – our attraction to life and lifelike processes – is at the heart of this. Nobody can deny that biophilia is an integral aspect of human nature. And, as I hope my next book will show, it can be found everywhere in the technological world too.

So I would like to propose that this summer when the National Trust implements its plans to 'to turn Britain’s cotton-wool kids into free-range children', it does not turn its back on new technologies, but instead seeks synergies in the ways these different yet interwoven ecosystems both connect and enhance our engagement with the natural world in all its glory. And that includes the many kinds of materials and qualities which make up our lives today – wooden, leafy, solar, metallic, silicon and many many others. All of them, whether having grown out of the earth or the result of human action and intention are, as American nature poet Gary Snyder would say, part of the physical universe and all its properties. Let us move forward in that spirit.

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