How to encourage a child’s biophilia

The sight of children lugging large heavy bags while sprinting to school reveals how their schedules are dictated by aptitudes considered important by the modern world: tight class schedules, sports and exercise, homework, and chores. But not the natural world. 

These school activities overlook the human body’s need for natural surroundings and undermine the importance of time spent outdoors. World Environment Day on 5 June is a time to consider teaching our children the importance of creating and protecting green spaces, to support their learning abilities and emotional manageability. It is never too early to start. 

The human brain is at its most fertile as a child, and is capable of adapting and absorbing knowledge at an exceptional pace. It is also true that this stage of development is the most defining time for growing children. 

The quality of a child’s experience (positive or negative) helps shape how their brains develop. Just as negative experiences such as being exposed to traumatic life events define a child’s perspective and personality, positive experiences like spending quality time outdoors can help boost brain development. 

Green spaces not only benefit the brain, but studies show that they can also impact physical ailments by building microbes and antibodies in our system which would be otherwise absent in a child confined indoors. Psychologically, spending time in nature also releases serotonin in the brain, almost immediately lifting up our spirits.  

The same study also demonstrates the positive benefits of spending time in nature for children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Even a simple walk in nature spurs concentration levels in children. Besides playing a key role in cognitive development, exposure to nature also has wide-ranging emotional, physical, and physiological benefits for children which is the reason outdoor learning education programs have started gaining popularity in recent years.

Physical activity and unstructured play are also important factors contributing to a child’s growth and development. While one fulfils the body’s physical needs, unstructured play triggers the creative side of the brain. 

‘Forest Floors’, a Scandinavian concept, spurs early childhood development by recreating small patches of ‘forest’ in the playground. Just a little grass and some mud expose children to good microbes. If a small patch of transplanted forest floor can have this impact, imagine what consistent exposure to our natural surroundings could do.

There is a strong connection between nature and the overall growth process of children, which is why incorporating environmental education and psychology into the national curriculum as a primary subject has a compelling justification. 

While there may be a growing consensus among parents that children can gain knowledge from watching nature documentaries and working on conservation through the classroom, these second-hand adventures will never hold the same sensory and emotional impact as childhood discoveries beneath a moss-covered brick, or a pile of dried leaves.  

According to Wilson’s (1984) well-regarded ‘biophilia hypothesis,’ humans are born with an innate affinity for nature. It asserts that human dependence on nature is not limited to material and physical sustenance but also intellectual, cognitive and spiritual needs. 

Since children develop habits, personalities, and interests when young, this affinity for nature needs to be encouraged at the right age. If children’s natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to flourish during the early years, or left unencouraged, children may even develop biophobia: an aversion to nature. 

Schools must incorporate conservation/environmental education to facilitate early childhood development. This could include rich and challenging environments and multisensory based activities such as storytelling, communication, and other outdoor learning activities, to tap into a child’s full potential and inculcate pro-environment values among young children. 

In Nepal, Environment Education is part of the larger science subject in the curriculum, however, due to easy access to nature throughout the country, many schools have incorporated elements of the ‘Green School’ concept. The Ministry of Education (MoE) supported by WWF Nepal, launched a Green School Guideline in 2018, with the objective of helping schools create an enabling environment for children and with a vision to transform spaces in schools into ‘Living Libraries’. 

This teaches children patience, creativity, stress control while inculcating a strong connection to nature with the ‘One School, One Garden’ idea. Kopila Valley School in Surkhet has taken the concept a step further to be completely eco-friendly, built with earth materials, and fitted with solar energy and rainwater harvesting. 

The Green School Guideline, implemented through ‘eco clubs’ in schools, is geared towards encouraging children to become environmentally responsible citizens. It encourages children to plant medicinal herbs, fruits, fast-growing crops and bio fences within the school premises to promote permaculture and agro-forestry as an alternative to traditional agricultural systems. 

These ‘green schools’ teach principles of conservation and the importance of protecting nature to the children and the community. Nepal faces multiple challenges from being highly climate-vulnerable despite negligible emissions, to having an economy that is heavily reliant on foreign aid, which is why it is pertinent that we create a far-sighted curriculum for our children that addresses immediate challenges, innovative solutions and works towards building a sustainable tomorrow for ourselves and our planet. 

Shristi KC is the Campaigns and Education Officer at WWF Nepal

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