Ours is a generation that has lost touch with wild and unruly nature. With our island becoming more built up on the past decades, our fields and forests have been tamed into manicured lawns and golf courses and even our latest nature project, the Gardens by the Bay, reflects our desire for order and control.
In hot and humid Singapore, it is tempting to allow our children to spend most of their time indoors, in air-conditioned shopping centres and play gyms. Certainly in this day and age, electronic gadgets, such as the iPad, have become the default entertainment tool (or crutch) for caregivers. Talk about nature and young parents are often paralysed by the number of things that could go wrong if they let their young ones out into the wild: germs, dirt, insect bites, heat rashes, sunburn… the list goes on.
Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, argues that children these days suffer from “nature deficit disorder”. What he means is that children are spending less and less time in natural surroundings and that their only interaction with it is a brief one en route to another structured activity.
In an environment like built-up Singapore, it is not impossible to bypass any close interaction with nature when a child is transiting from home to school or from school to say, swim classes. But rather than blame our urban landscape and weather, perhaps we should examine our role in their increasing isolation from the natural world.
Some parents limit their children’s contact with nature because they are afraid of them being bitten or coming in contact with bacteria. Ironically, in their zeal to protect, they may end up compromising their kids’ immune systems.
According to a study conducted by the University of Montréal, the more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime. As long as proper hygiene is observed after outdoor activities, there is no reason for excessive worry.
Contact with nature is not always a neither-nor affair. Lena Lee, the mother of an infant girl, adopts a gentle approach to as she is concerned about her baby mouthing foreign objects. “I will show her books on plants, animals, insects and the landscape. But I will also allow trips to parks, gardens and reservoirs to help engage her sense of sight and smell,” she says.
Dr Low E-Wen, a biologist and mother of two, has her own set of rules when it comes to exploring the natural world. Her children are not allowed to touch any plants or animals unless those organisms are deemed safe or are passed to them by her.
“When we go to the beaches, the first thing I do is to bring my older boy to the rock pools,” she says. “I usually encourage him to pick up empty shells and explain (in simple English) why they are of different shapes and sizes, what organisms the shells belong to and what the role of the organism in the food web. There are so many things to show: barnacles (my son giggled when he found out that barnacles spent most of their lives sitting on their heads), snails and even hermit crabs.”
It took a few attempts before Dr Low’s then 2.5-year-old son found the courage to handle the hermit crabs placed on his palms. But once the psychological barrier was overcome, he was mesmerised by them scurrying about on his palms.
“The parents’ attitude plays an important role,” adds Dr Low. “If a parent has no interest in nature, it would be very hard to inculcate in the child a love for the great outdoors.
With the abolishing of kampongs and intensification of our public housing estates, the number of natural outdoor play spaces for Singaporean children have also declined sharply. Coupled the population growth in the recent years, parents are also less willing to allow their kids to roam freely from home even if there are attractive parks and gardens nearby. An unspoken but powerful parental fear is that of child abduction. Certainly, this fear is real but have we grown overly cautious as a society?
Richard Louv suggests that parents think more in terms of comparative risk. “In limiting children’s flexibility to explore nature on their own,” he writes, “we are inadvertently narrowing their opportunities to develop problem-solving abilities, self-esteem, cognitive flexibility, physical health and mental well-being.”
He is echoed by Dr. Stephen R Kellert of Yale University who says, “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”
In other words, unstructured free play outdoors not only makes children more cooperative and healthier, they also make them smarter. Research have also shown that outdoor play have significant emotional benefits, which include stress reduction, reduced aggression and overall increased happiness.
In Singapore, where fewer families have access to their own backyards or gardens, parents just have to work harder to find opportunities for safe outdoor play. Letting your child loose in a rainforest may provoke some anxieties but with the amount of greenery in on our island, it is not impossible to find a safe spot to explore while you keep watch unobtrusively. A community garden, a farm in Kranji, a field of lalang in Punggol, or even a cluster of mimosa can be an entire universe of discovery.
As parents, it is our instinct to protect our offspring. Yet, in guarding against these possible “dangers” that nature present, we may be inadvertently exposing them to long-term developmental and health risks. More importantly, we are depriving our children of the very experiences that make us human. After all, we are part of an ecosystem that consists, not of concrete, metal and electronic beeps, but of earth, water, living creatures big and small.
Gwen Lee is the author of the children’s book Little Cloud Wants Snow! Now available at all good bookstores and on Amazon.com.