A report published on Wednesday by Public Health England found that British children who spend most time in front of televisions and computer screens have lower self-esteem and greater emotional problems.Excessive ‘screen time’ – more than four hours a day – is linked to anxiety and depression and is responsible for limiting a child’s opportunity for social interaction and physical activity.A National Trust report last year says much the same, highlighting the problem of UK children losing contact with nature at a “dramatic” rate, and their health and education suffering as a result. A sedentary, screen-based childhood is obviously far from ideal but it is becoming pretty normal.In today’s Independent a parent writes, “Making Project Wild Thing, a documentary about children’s relationship with nature, I strapped a camera to my five-year-old daughter’s head to see how she spent her time. A third is spent in school, over a quarter on screens and just 4 per cent playing outside. Research shows she is not atypical.”

In his 2005 book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ American author Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ which describes the human costs of alienation from nature, chiefly: diminished use of the senses, attention
difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.There are many reasons why children now spend so much time indoors on computer games, Richard Louv believes that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally “scared children straight out of the woods and fields, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play.” We live in such a climate of fear that parents worry excessively and probably unrealistically about issues such as traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ There is an increasing amount of ‘helicopter parents’, who watch and direct their children’s every move, denying them the freedom they more than likely themselves enjoyed when they were growing up.

Like most parents I can get frustrated if my children on a hot day are sitting round the computer or goggle-eyed in front of a DVD, but I do try to turf them outside as much as possible; days at the beach or walking in the woods or at nature reserves or parks and going to the beach take up much of our week.My children are also allowed to go in to town on errands and take themselves to the local green space to play. As far as modern children go they have a lot of freedom in this respect, though I have to admit that I had even fewer restrictions when growing up in the 1970s. The National Trust reported that fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places compared to almost half a generation ago; and children spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with the commonest wild creatures-though nine out of ten children can recognise a Dalek! A massive factor of course is the addictive nature of screen-based entertainment coupled with the power of advertising and of course peer pressure.How can we market nature to children? It is a question we need to answer. The solution to the ever increasing problems of ADHD, childhood depression and obesity could lie right outside our windows.

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