As the global pandemic continues to keep children indoors in many parts of the world, there is a continuing barrage of information on how to keep them ‘meaningfully engaged’. And heading the list is online activities–the one-size-fits-all solution. It started with online classes and assignments to help complete the academic year and requirements. This grew to include online ‘activities’ with students following virtual instructions to make and do things. And then, on to stories being told through a face and voice on a one-way screen. And now, invitations to discover Nature online.
This in itself seems to be a contradiction in terms. Especially for an environmental educator whose work and mantra for over three decades had been ‘connecting children with nature’. Environmental education as we believed was learning in the environment, learning through the environment, and for the environment. More than anything else, this was true for nature education. Based on this conviction we worked with passion and imagination to create hands-on teaching-learning experiences–from stepping outside the classroom to observe a single tree, to a camping experience of immersion in natural surroundings. These were experiences that engaged not just the head, but all the five senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling—and thence the heart. We believed that it was the heart and not the head which would create a new generation of sensitive, informed and able champions of the environment.
As Rachel Carson beautifully put it, “For a child…, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow”.
But this was a Sisyphean task. Even while people like us were advocating the ‘take children outdoors’ experience, children everywhere were beginning to stay indoors more and more, due to a variety of reasons. The seriousness of the situation was highlighted in a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Published in 2005, the author Richard Louv expressed his apprehension at the growing phenomenon of alienation from Nature, and coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder.
NDD was then an unwanted side-effect of the electronic age and a plugged-in-culture. Today, this is threatening to be a major fallout of an unfamiliar and unprecedented global pandemic. As our children remain cloistered in what we hope is a safe environment, our lives are slowly been taken over by technology.
Much can be taught and learnt online. But Nature? Will the most beautiful pictures and inspiring speakers be able to match the intangibles of a personal experience? Will a set of neatly-framed images on a flat screen be able to create an experience that engages all the senses? Will it have any room for the magic of “feeling”? Will it create the child-nature connection that is a fundamental element of a children’s cognitive development, as well as its psychological and physical health.
What will be the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of this technology-supported human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years?
When some day in the not too distant future we emerge from our sanitised cocoons, blinking our eyes in the sunshine, let us remember again that real and not virtual Nature is the best teacher.
“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.” Rachel Carson