Children and the natural world

Lars Stenberg, Sensory Trust

I read recently that, according to the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, media violence affects children’s behaviour, attitudes and values.

Well yes, if all these heavyweight associations for our well-being agree that our children are affected by images of violence then it seems reasonable to assume they are. Apparently media violence - by which they mean depictions of violence in movies, video games and in the news - makes children desensitised… but desensitised to what?

A few years ago I was involved in a project to bring urban schoolchildren out to a farm to learn about where food comes from. These were exactly the sort of children everyone imagines when they read these reports. Disengaged and self-absorbed. Surely then they would scoff and roll their teenage eyes at the dull goings-on in the farmyard?

Not a bit of it. In fact when you put one of these desensitised fourteen year olds in front of a pig - in all its aromatic, hairy, snorty, slobbery, muscley, random, inquisitive pigginess – you see just how sensitive they really are. Pretty sensitive in my experience.

So, media images of violence may well desensitise our children to media images of violence, but certainly not to real live farm animals in search of an apple.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that media violence does make children less sensitive to everything, that images in our news, movies and magazines “affect children’s behaviour, attitudes and values” in a way that is permanent and undesirable. What should we do? The answer that we should somehow limit or ban these images, or prevent children from being exposed to them seems obvious.

But there’s another argument: children today are not over-stimulated and desensitised. Compared to previous generations, children today - and we're talking about western-urban children - live a thin, beige, flavourless existence where most of what they experience is vicarious and pre-packaged by media companies, global restaurant chains, and indoor leisure facilities. Their experience of the world outside their homes begins with the ballroom at Ikea and ends with the bus shelter opposite McDonalds. Their desensitisation is not due to over-stimulation but to the terminal blandness of their immediate environment.

While their virtual lives have become more and more engaging and "immersive" (to use a slightly chilling computer industry term) children's real lives have become less and less compelling. Planning decisions, changes in our neighbourhoods and social networks, and parental fear of injury or abduction have all contributed to an almost complete absence of freedom for our children today. An absence that a vast industry is happily catering for. Or contributing to.

It may well be that, by receiving a large part of their world experience from a glass screen while lying on the sofa at room temperature, our children have become complacent. With a video screen and a single hand controller children are led to believe that they can fly aircraft, drive cars, shoot anything and anyone, and beat the number one tennis seed in three straight sets.

A few months back I saw a girl of about six or seven burst into tears when confronted by a grassy bank about a meter high. Her parents had walked down the bank but, standing at the top, she was plainly terrified (she kept repeating "it's steep mummy") at the uneven ground and her parents, after attempts to encourage her down, finally had to carry her to the car. Now, there might have been any number of reasons for the girl's tantrum, but we should be aware that time spent playing outside is not just a quaint luxury. It gives our children opportunities to experience the natural world and the things in it - muddy, cold, heavy, rough, smelly, difficult and a thousand other adjectives - and learn the basic skills of being in the world.

Lottery fundedNatural England


SNAP (Sensory Nature, Adventure and Play) - bringing nature into the lives of children with disabilities and their families.

Sensory learning and our environment - article about how we learn through all our senses and implications for connecting with our environment

Go Outside and Play - article outlining the benefits of play and spending time outdoors

Let Nature Feed Your Senses