JESS FRENCH

CHIL­DREN CAN­NOT EX­PE­RI­ENCE THE NAT­U­RAL WORLD VIA A TABLET. THEY SHOULD BE EN­COUR­AGED TO PLAY OUT­DOORS.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Wel­come - JESS J FRENCH is a zo­ol­o­gist, vet and CCBee­bies pre­sen­ter. Minibeasts with Jess French F (Blooms­bury, £12.99) is out now.

“Chil­dren can­not ex­pe­ri­ence the nat­u­ral world via a tablet”

CHIL­DREN ARE BORN INTO A WORLD OF SCREENS, SELF­IES AND SO­CIAL ME­DIA. CONKERS SEEM OUT OF DATE.”

Spring’s ar­rival is al­ways a wel­come tonic for the win­ter blues, but this year was ex­tra spe­cial. I watched a dull, grey world burst into bright and bril­liant life through the eyes of my baby daugh­ter. Chat­ting to other new mums, I re­marked on the pure joy of watch­ing the grass tickle her tiny toes for the very first time, and was shocked to be met with dis­ap­proval – even fear.

As their tod­dlers swiped and clicked on an ar­ray of dig­i­tal de­vices, these con­cerned par­ents listed the dan­gers of al­low­ing my five-month-old to play in the dirt.

It’s no se­cret that the young peo­ple of our ul­tra-con­nected elec­tronic age are more dis­con­nected from na­ture than they have ever been. In­creas­ingly fear­ful of the great out­doors, par­ents are quick to choose clean, in­door al­ter­na­tives over messy, dan­ger­ous wild play. Chil­dren are born into a world of screens, so­cial me­dia and self­ies. Some­how, conkers are now deemed out of date.

If they’re lucky, pri­mary school­child­ren get to ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture ta­bles and for­est school ses­sions. But many still don’t, es­pe­cially in de­prived ar­eas, and lots of com­mu­ni­ties lack any adult role mod­els en­cour­ag­ing them into the nat­u­ral world. Un­sur­pris­ingly, we are cre­at­ing young peo­ple in­ca­pable of sit­ting still long enough to ex­pe­ri­ence the magic of watch­ing a but­ter­fly emerge from a chrysalis in real time. Ac­cus­tomed as they are to a cul­ture of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, most would pre­fer to watch the per­for­mance on a tablet.

Are these the nat­u­ral­ists of the fu­ture? I hope not. For na­ture to re­ally cast its heal­ing spell over me, the wait­ing is cru­cial. The days of check­ing if tad­poles have emerged yet from their jelly; the weeks spent watch­ing for the first mi­grant swal­lows or swifts. The quiet still­ness pre­ced­ing these fa­mil­iar nat­u­ral oc­cur­rences is just as im­por­tant as the ex­cite­ment of the events them­selves, for this is when my busy mind is calmed.

I’m not alone in these feel­ings. It has been shown that early ex­po­sure to na­ture is crit­i­cal for the psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing of de­vel­op­ing hu­mans. More time in green spa­ces means less de­pres­sion; the link has been un­equiv­o­cally proven. So why are we deny­ing our chil­dren ac­cess to these nat­u­ral reme­dies?

We are now far enough into the dig­i­tal age that chil­dren who grew up with no ac­cess to green spa­ces are be­com­ing par­ents them­selves. It is pos­si­ble that these par­ents don’t know how to en­cour­age out­door play. And for those that do, it is eas­ier to sit a child in a cor­ner with a mo­bile phone than take re­spon­si­bil­ity for pro­tect­ing them from the sup­posed dan­gers of the world out­side.

Of course, it’s im­pos­si­ble to shel­ter our chil­dren com­pletely from the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that shape the land­scape of their fu­ture. Elec­tronic gad­gets are per­ma­nent fea­tures in my daugh­ter’s world. Hav­ing been en­cour­aged to ex­plore na­ture, some bril­liant young trail­blaz­ers are now us­ing tech­nol­ogy to en­hance, rather than re­place, their wildlife en­coun­ters.

Re­becca is a seven-year-old nat­u­ral­ist who cre­ates ‘vlogs’ about but­ter­fly con­ser­va­tion. So­cial me­dia-savvy Dara con­nects young nat­u­ral­ists through his pop­u­lar wildlife blog. Eight-year-old Ai­den makes videos about con­ser­va­tion. Tech­nol­ogy can be an aid to wild ex­pe­ri­ences and helps young­sters to con­nect with other like-minded in­di­vid­u­als.

We can­not hope for our chil­dren to repli­cate the tech-free wild ex­pe­ri­ences we had as young­sters, be­cause the world they live in is not the same. But we can en­cour­age them to spend qual­ity time in na­ture. It will arm them with a tool­kit of nat­u­ral an­ti­dotes to the anx­i­eties of a fu­ture world that we can­not yet imag­ine.

Jess in­tro­duces two chil­dren to a wa­ter snail.

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