Understanding the power of nature to transform lives
by Melissa Harrison
In London’s parks, gardens and green spaces the first of the blackthorn is coming into bloom: tiny white flowers that herald the season of blossom to come. Here and there, daffs are appearing like little yellow trumpets, and every day the birdsong is swelling: thrushes, robins, wrens, blackbirds and dunnocks, soon to be joined by migrants from warmer climes, like chiffchaffs and blackcaps. Spring is arriving in the city, and lifting the hearts of everyone who notices.
Learning to notice nature can transform lives – particularly in urban areas. When I first moved to London I rented a flat with no open spaces around it, no grass or planted beds and very few street trees. I had no contact with green, growing things, and I felt disconnected and miserable – although I wasn’t sure why. Eventually I rented a flat in Streatham with a little garden, and adopted a rescue dog, and the combination of being able to grow things outdoors and taking my dog out for daily walks in nature changed my life. Instead of an expanse of hostile grey concrete, London began to seem like a green and welcoming place. I felt connected to the plants and animals around me, to the changing seasons, and to the weather; I felt happier and healthier in myself.
There are well-documented reasons for this. ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is a term coined by Stephen Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. He writes, “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses”.
In the decade since his book was published, scientific study after scientific study has confirmed Louv’s hypothesis: humans have an inbuilt need to experience the natural world, and when that need is unmet, there are consequences for our physical, mental and emotional health. I felt it happen, in a small way, during my early years in London. But for our children, the need is far more acute: after all, they only get one childhood, and we know now that disconnection from nature can have lasting effects.
Helping the next generation to experience the natural world is more challenging now than it was in the past. I was born in 1975, when kids were given a great deal more freedom than they are now. There was a lot less traffic then, less fear of ‘stranger danger’, a less litigious and risk-averse culture, and far fewer things to do indoors like watch TV or play computer games. So I grew up playing outside, largely unsupervised: climbing trees, building camps, looking for animals like toads and hedgehogs, and damming streams.
But in the last 30 years, children’s ‘radius of activity’ has dropped by an estimated 90%, their ability to identify common species has plummeted, and for children growing up in urban areas, who often lack access to gardens or safe places to play outside, the challenges can be even greater.
That’s why the forest school and environmental education movement is so important, and why not-for-profit organisations like Nature Vibezzz are so vital in giving city kids and their parents the confidence to embrace, connect with and value the natural world. These are activities with the potential to transform lives, so every time I’m out with my dog and I see a den, a muddy puddle with welly-boot prints in, or a child excitedly climbing a tree, I smile. The world may have changed but our need for nature hasn’t, and community projects like Nature Vibezzz help make sure all kids can find a way in.
Melissa Harrison is a writer who lives in Streatham