There is a lot of evidence that suggests both people and nature lose out when they do not interact. Being in nature is good for our mental and physical health and people are much more likely to both care about nature and contribute to its protection if they have positive formative experiences in it. Within the conservation sector, the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD) has been coined to describe the growing separation between children and the natural world.
I fiercely believe that the protection and restoration of the natural world is crucial, both for its own sake and for the benefits it provides to humanity. I believe that unless we convince young people of this, there is no hope for the future of nature. Recent research shows that there is a low point in people’s connection to nature at roughly 15 years old. Focusing on young people around this age could help them enter adulthood feeling a greater connection to the natural world that stays with them for the rest of their lives.
Whilst NDD and the growing gulf between people and the natural world are serious problems, there is a simple solution - get young people out into the natural world. It doesn’t have to be for weeks on end, and it doesn’t have to be excursions led by experts in natural history. You just have to be outside and willing to share your excitement and enthusiasm. Last week I was lucky enough to do this while spending five days volunteering at a residential camp run by Action for Conservation (AFC), a charity aimed at inspiring young people to take action to help conserve the natural world.
It was an incredible experience and rewarding in more ways than one. Most of all, it provided me with the opportunity to share my love of nature. When I am on a walk with friends, it usually isn’t long before someone tells me to shut up after a long spiel about something naturey. In stark contrast this camp allowed me and other like-minded volunteers to offer up our knowledge to a group of interested young people. It is gratifying to know that I am doing something concrete to help tackle the disconnect between young people and nature, and seeing a tangible change in them.
Some of the young people we were working with haven’t spent much of their lives outside of London and certain moments of their interactions with nature stick in my memory. The look on a young person’s face as he held a yellow hammer and released it during a bird ringing exercise with the British Trust for Ornithology. The collective gasp as we announced to the group that a strange yellow rectangle with coiled strings that we found on the beach was a shark egg case. Being asked during a talk about my PhD research whether a rhino horn would be able to go through a car door. Finally, on a slightly less altruistic note, the camp gave me the chance to reconnect with British nature myself and act like a big kid for five days. To run about on a beach, to lie down in the woods and stare at the sky, to see a bat hunt over a pond and to walk barefoot on cold, wet grass. All things I haven’t done in what seems like an age.
The young people that I met on camp give me great cause for optimism. They are far more engaged than I was at that age. I wasn’t worried about global environmental issues at the age of 13. I’m not sure what I spent most of my time doing, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about climate breakdown, single-use plastics, the decline of biodiversity and what we can do to counter all these things. The power that young people have to bring attention to global environmental issues is shown by Greta Thunberg and the global climate strikes. Protests are an important part of any movement, but activities that engage young people with the natural world like these camps are vital as well. They will be the generation that makes great strides in solving these problems that threaten our very existence, we have to ensure we give them the tools and the motivation and support to empower them to do so.