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PEOPLE NEED CONNECTION TO NATURE & EACH OTHER: Nature-Deficit Disorder Exists Even in Some of the Most Nature-Rich Places on the Planet

About the Author

Heather Kuhlken incorporated her experience as a teacher and biologist and her passion for nature to found Austin Families in Nature in 2008. Since then, Kuhlken has guided AFiN’s growth into a 501c3 non-profit (Families in Nature). Kuhlken leads nature-rich travel experiences for families in the US and abroad. She also works as a nature photographer, designs natural playscapes, serves on the leadership team for the Children and Nature Collaborative of Austin and volunteers for the Children & Nature Network.

Heather Kuhlken - Masters of Technology and the Natural World
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On a recent trip to Micronesia, I had an unexpected layover on the island of Chuuk. As the sun was setting, I walked out to the fishing pier to enjoy one last look at the ocean before heading home. A new friend, Dr. Gabriel Kulwuam, joined me on the pier. We spent the next hour talking and trading stories. Gabriel lives on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). He has a PhD from Queensland, Australia and works for The Nature Conservancy. We spoke about his island home– a coastal village about 50 feet from the beach, within a big lagoon where Gabriel watches seagulls flying, fish jumping, and hears the birds singing. We spoke about how his village has changed over the last few decades.

We both find it amazing that he can now travel to the other side of the world and call his wife at home on a small Pacific Island in a hut made of natural materials where she is cooking dinner over a wood fire, and they can talk to each other by cell phone. Not all changes are bad.

When Gabriel asked me about the work that I do, I told him about the need I saw for families to have time together. I explained that families in the U.S. seem to be less and less connected to each other, as kids and parents are both over-scheduled and busy all the time. There is little time to be together, simply talking, listening and connecting. In addition to feeling less connected to each other, people are also less connected to nature. Children spend very little time outdoors, spending it instead in front of screens at home and at school. Richard Louv describes this phenomenon as nature-deficit disorder in his book “Last Child in the Woods.”

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Dr. Gabriel Kulwuam

With three children of my own, I saw the families around us (ours included) struggling to spend time together, and rarely, if ever, spending that time outdoors in nature. This inspired me to create Families in Nature, a nonprofit program whose mission is to connect families to nature and to each other through time spent learning, playing and volunteering outdoors. In addition to time together with family, children need the opportunity to fall in love with nature and become fascinated by it. That love and fascination can only develop if children experience the natural world. Connection to nature and time spent immersed in nature benefit children (and adults) in many physical and emotional ways, as well as helping create the next generation of conservationists.

Gabriel told me of his grandchildren. Three of them live in a large city in PNG. These grandchildren seem very similar to Western children – spending much of their time indoors and online, well-educated, but less connected to nature.  His other three grandchildren live on Manus Island, in a village rather than in a large city. These grandchildren know how to paddle a canoe, catch fish, and find their way in the forest. They have survival skills and spend much of their time surrounded by nature exploring and playing. Gabriel believes that it is important for children to have these skills and spend time in the forest and in the ocean. He would like all of his grandchildren to have this connection to nature, not just those who live outside the city.

Gabriel was very interested my program. He even asked me if it was possible to start such program in PNG. This surprised me. I could not imagine that people in PNG would need help being connected to nature. But Gabriel says that it is becoming more and more difficult to remain close to nature. “We are now faced with pressure from the Western world to have more material goods,” he explained.

I told Gabriel what I have told many parents and grandparents here in the U.S. who also would like their children to feel connected to nature. Sometimes, all you need to do is invite your children or grandchildren and their friends to go canoeing. I believe that humans are innately programmed to connect to the natural world.

If you take families outside to a nature-rich place, you will help them feel safe and comfortable. They will turn off their screens and cell phones for the afternoon and will naturally start to form a connection to the nature that surrounds them. They will talk to each other and form deeper personal connections based on uninterrupted interactions of genuine attention. They may go back to their busy lives and nearly constant screens, but they will have a shared memory of their time together on the small adventure you planned. String a few small adventures together, and soon families will know how to fish, how to paddle a canoe and how to find their way in the forest.

HK Climate Change Adaptation Workshop
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Participants in the Climate Change Adaptation Workshop in Pohnpei

Children who grow up in the modern world, whether in a large American city, or on a small island in Papua New Guinea, can become what Richard Louv and Gabriel Kalwuam both independently called a “hybrid” child. A “hybrid” child can navigate the world of the internet, cell phones, computers, and a global economy as well as the forest or the ocean. As parents on opposite sides of the planet, Gabriel and I share the common goal of raising “hybrid” children/grandchildren within a strong, connected family.

The need for connection to nature can be felt all over the world, from busy cities to nature-rich Pacific Islands. In an email to me after the workshop, Gabriel wrote, “You are not alone in this world; we are together in spirit and in thoughts connecting and sharing because we live in a changing global village. We are all fighting in the same battle field against the common enemy for the cause of a better world and better life.”

I truly hope that the communities on these small Pacific Islands can continue to spend time relaxing together in the shade of a tree while also understanding the world of cell phones and internet, rather than moving towards the Western model of nearly constant screen time and a fast-paced life. If these communities can strike that balance, they will have achieved the hybrid model and have the best of both worlds.  They will have ability to call someone on the other side of the planet and stay connected despite distance, the ability to collaborate with multi-national NGOs to affect change in their community and the world, and the ability to catch fish, paddle a canoe and feel connected to the natural world.

As our economy and our culture become more and more global, so does our need for connection to nature and to each other. So no matter what part of the planet you live on, grab your children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors and go outside on an adventure together. Tell positive stories of change and inspire your adventurers to fall in love with the natural world around them.

Additional Reading

THE HYBRID MIND: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need

TECHNOLOGY IS IN OUR NATURE: But to Flourish, We Still Need Our Wild Connection

OFF THE GRID: And On To Kindergarten

RESTORING PEACE: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World

THE RIGHT TO A WALK IN THE WOODS: Children’s connection to the natural world should be considered a human right

WILD-SNAPPING: Digital Photography Helps Techno-Savvy Kids Focus on Nature

C&NN Resources

Technology may help engage children in outdoor activities

Children’s connection with nature is influenced by their enjoyment of nature, empathy for creatures, sense of oneness and sense of responsibility

In the News

Can Technology Get Kids to Play Outside?

How Technology Could Motivate Children to Explore Nature

Why We All Need a Dose of Vitamin N: In Our Increasingly Digitally Dependent and Urbanised World, Are We Slowly Losing Touch with Nature?

Photo Credit: Heather Kuhlken

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