Let kids get dirty and fall over, they’ll survive
I SAW something remarkable the other day - children climbing trees in the park.
Older ones were helping younger ones and there was laughter. You know, that infectious cackling kids make when they're uninhibited.
Where were the parents? Not hovering like helicopters and nagging them to be careful, but sitting on picnic blankets a fair distance away, leaving their kids to get on with exploring, scrapes and all.
It struck me how right this seemed, yet how rarely it occurs.
Tomorrow is National Tree Day - more than 4 million people have planted 24 million trees and plants since its inception in 1996 - but the way some people behave, you'd think nature was the enemy.
Too many children are cocooned inside, babysat by TV and given screens to amuse them from infancy.
If a child misbehaves in a shopping centre or is too loud in a restaurant, parents don't go to the effort of disciplining them or gently reminding them to use their quiet voice in public. They shove a device in their hands and consider the job done.
So when I hear parents complain that their kids, particularly teenagers, are glued to screens, I wonder who's responsible?
It's what happens - or doesn't happen - in the early years that conditions children going forward.
Part of the problem is that many adults are themselves clueless about engaging with nature.
A survey released last week shows parents aged 25-34 years are resorting to Google to teach them how to roast a marshmallow and pitch a tent.
Only 17 per cent are confident they could build a campfire, compared to one-third of those aged 45 to 54, according to the study commissioned by holiday park company Haven.
Are we on a downhill disconnect with nature?
It would seem so. Younger parents, don't forget, are the product of their own upbringing.
Over the past 20 years, parents have become obsessed with "containerisation", a term coined by Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology.
We have become adept at confining kids to too much time in car seats, high chairs, capsules and strollers.
Restricting children, even with the best of intentions, has resulted in them missing out on the robust, unstructured and spontaneous experiences that only nature offers - experiences that build resilience and boost creativity.
Additionally, our near-hysterical aversion to germs and dirt has hindered the development of strong immune systems.
Thirteen years ago, when Richard Louv published his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, he warned of a crisis.
"Camping in the garden, climbing trees, collecting bugs, picking wildflowers … for a whole generation of today's children, the pleasures of a free-range childhood are missing," wrote Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network in the US and an advocate of Australia's grassroots Nature Play organisations.
"Their indoor habits contribute to epidemic obesity, attention-deficit disorder, isolation and childhood depression."
In 2018, many of those children are now young parents and the very ones struggling to show their kids how to enjoy the outdoors.
What's the solution? Perhaps it starts with a back-to-basics approach, with parents making time to take their little ones to the park and not freaking out if they try to climb a tree.
What if they fall? They learn to get back up again. What if they become filthy? Soap and water works a treat.
On his last visit to Australia four years ago, Louv said Australia was heading the same way as America unless we reconnected with nature.
Fat, inactive kids become fat, inactive adults.
While he noted positive steps - paediatricians prescribing nature play over pharmaceuticals, school and community gardens boosting nutritional knowledge, and urban planners incorporating green space to promote physical and mental health - more needed to be done.
He's right. Nature is so much greater than we are, and it stimulates the imagination more than any structured environment or computer game can do.
Natural playgrounds, and we're blessed with an abundance in Australia, foster the kind of imaginative free play that allows kids to think outside the TV box and come up with their own solutions to problems - including boredom - instead of automatically deferring to screen devices.
At a time when companies are crying out for independent and creative thinkers, nature play is also an investment in employability.
The World Economic Forum, in its Future of Jobs report, identifies the top three of 10 skills to be sought by recruiters in 2020 as complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.
In 2015, creativity was at the bottom of the list in 10th. Now it's third.
Beyond employability and personal wellbeing, though, nature play encourages a deep connection with, and appreciation of, the environment that may, as Sir David Attenborough has observed, help save it for future generations.
Kylie Lang is a Courier-Mail associate editor.