Around the world, the new nature movement is growing quickly. In this post, we talk to Suhel Quader, head of the Education and Public Engagement Programme at India’s Nature Conservation Foundation. Suhel shares his views on the importance of nature for kids, and what his innovative organization is doing to connect children, families and communities to the natural world.
Why do you think it is important for children to connect with nature?
For several reasons. Most importantly, it’s a crucial part of a child’s development. There is increasing talk about how spending time outdoors benefits children, and how not spending this time can result in what’s been called nature-deficit disorder. The natural world is an essential part of our evolutionary and cultural history. But if we don’t love it, we won’t fight for it. The big worry is that children are spending less and less time outdoors. We need to push against this trend.
Can you talk about your own relationship with nature as a child?
Sure! I grew up on the outskirts of Hyderabad (the capital of southern India’s Telangana state), surrounded by imposing granite rock formations where I spent a great deal of time exploring scrub forests and small ponds. As a teenager, I remember spending long hours collecting and trying to identify grasses, stalking francolins (the Painted Francolin is one of my favorite birds) and driving a beaten-up moped along dusty tracks looking for hidden ponds. Because of those formative nature experiences, I was determined to do something related to nature as a career. And I was lucky to have parents who did all they could to help.
How would you describe nature-deficit disorder in children in India?
It seems to me that a large number of children in India have nature-deficit disorder, especially urban children. I would point to several factors for the trend, including the lack of a strong outdoors culture, the rising influence of the internet and mobile devices and the general “aspirational” mindset of even well-off people, focusing on greater wealth and consumption.
Can you talk more about the barriers that prevent children in India from developing a connection to nature?
I can see several barriers, especially for urban children. One is that nature is romanticized as existing only in distant and wild places, and so one’s everyday surroundings seem mundane in comparison—but there can be so much excitement in any patch of greenery! Also, several pieces of research show that early experience with a wilderness (even if it is an unkempt urban park) can be very influential. But parents these days are increasingly paranoid about letting their children out of the home unsupervised; and technology adds to this by providing the largely indoor temptations of smartphone apps, computer games, and so on.
Every kind of outdoor play is important for children. If it can happen in a semi-wild context, that’s even better!
How can parents, family, and teachers help to provide children with a connection to nature?
Children often learn to be excited about animals and plants from their elders and peers. If they learn that spiders are disgusting or that they should be afraid of ants, it’s no wonder that they retreat to the “safety” of the indoors and modern technology. What our program has been trying to do with children is to point out and (when possible) pick up any “creepy crawlies” that we come across. And, of course, to exmpasize how wonderful the creatures are. We try to put children in safe locations (eg. a residential campus), where they can explore on their own, away from our direct supervision. On vacations, we try to take them to natural habitats to explore and enjoy. Of course, each child is different.
One can try to open the door to the natural world for a child—but then they must step through the door on their own.
What are the different ways that kids living in urban settings can be encouraged to explore nature?
Natural ecosystems like national parks and sanctuaries are important to sustain and nurture. But we shouldn’t imagine that our immediate environment is unimportant. Children can explore nature in a variety of ways—from natural ecosystems that might be far away, to the gecko in the child’s home, to the plant on their balcony. At the EPE, we have been devising nature activities—about ants and tree bark, soil and birds, and so on—that children can carry out in their own neighborhoods.
What are some of the ways that your program helps to connect children to nature?
We do three broad things for and with children in the EPE program: we write for children; we create activities and material for them; and we involve them in generating a better scientific understanding of nature.
We try to reach a broad audience of children by writing a regular column in the Schools Edition of The Hindu. Over the years, lots of people from the NCF family have written for this column, which gets published about every other week. So far, over 100 articles have been published in this series.
We are also working on bringing out a series of nature-based activities for children, the main aim of these is to bring children outside their homes, away from technology and out looking at insects, birds, plants, soil, etc. Some of these activities have been published.
We hope to publish a book of these activities soon.
We also create other kinds of learning materials. One of the most notable is the Early Bird series, which is designed to introduce children to the diversity and general awesomeness of birds.
Finally, we are involved in citizen science projects, which are efforts to engage the larger public in collecting information about the natural world. One of these is SeasonWatch, where several hundred schools and individuals are helping to track the seasonal changes of flowering, fruiting, and leafing of trees. Another project is on birds (Bird Count India), where we work with birdwatchers across the country to collate their sightings into a single repository (eBird) that then can be used to look at distribution, abundance, and seasonality.
So, are you optimistic that we can reverse nature-deficit disorder?
I think it’s fairly clear how these connections can be made, strengthened and rekindled. That is what we are trying to do and will keep doing. What’s disheartening is the scale of the effort required. What we do reaches a few thousand or perhaps tens of thousands of children and adults. But that is a tiny fraction of the number of kids and adults that we need to reach for there to be a change in the societal (and therefore political) attitude towards nature and wildlife. I don’t know whether that necessarily makes me pessimistic, but it certainly tempers my optimism!
Portions of this interview were reprinted from the NCF Blog, EcoLogic.
Additional Reading & Resources
Learn about NCF’s Education and Public Engagement Program
THE LIGHT OF NATURAL LEADERS: Young People Move the New Nature Movement
LET’S CREATE A WORLDWIDE HOMEGROWN PARK
NEW INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION TO THE FORGOTTEN HUMAN RIGHT
CHILDREN AND NATURE WORLDWIDE: A Shared Vision
A WORLD OF POSITIVITY: Stories of Hope from a Children and Nature Leader in India
A Call for More Open Spaces for Kids in India
Access to Play a Challenge in Mumbai
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Photo credits: NCF