This week, the National Trust released details of a research project carried out with the University of Derby, revealing that, in the past year:
- 90 per of children and 57% of adults in the UK infrequently or never watched the sunrise
- 83 per cent of children and 79% of adults infrequently or never smelled wild flowers
- 77 per cent of children and 62% of adults infrequently or never listened to birdsong.
Moreover, the survey revealed 80% of Britons said they rarely or never took a photo, or drew a picture of nature.
This last fact is particularly surprising when nearly two-thirds of the UK's population are regularly on social media – sharing pictures and updates from their daily lives. There may be over 50,000,000 posts tagged with the hashtag sunrise on Instagram and 250,000,000 posts with the hashtag sunset, but if social media is a looking glass of human concerns, it’s clear that people are significantly more interested in celebs than they are lonely clouds or daffodils. Eighteen of the top twenty posts in 2020 feature famous people; no less than a third feature Kylie Jenner (although, happily, the famous ‘egg’ instapost still occupies the top spot).
So are we in danger of completely losing our connection with nature? And, knowing that active engagement with nature, especially at a young age, is a predictor of pro-environmental behaviours (see the Outdoor People Muddy Hands report), could this disconnection prove a problem when we're trying to encourage action on the climate crisis?
Day to day, we have little time to spare, and what time we have is often whittled away by the urge to maintain online connections. It seems the liminal opportunities we have for engagement with nature (ten minutes to sun ourselves in the garden, or to watch the birds on the feeder) are increasingly being replaced by snatches of screen-time between daily tasks, scrolling through Buzzfeed.
We know that time spent in nature can make us feel happier and less stressed (according to research published in Nature, as little as two hours a week can make all the difference); and that time spent online frequently has the opposite effect. Yet this disconnection is an acute contemporary example of an eternal human paradox: we expend time and effort on things we know are bad for us, or bring us down, and neglect the things that make us healthier and happier.
Recently, one of the young people who is a regular on our Family Wild Walks complained they never had enough time to spend outside, and expressed a wish that adults would ban them (occasionally) from time-stealing social media: ‘You sit down for one minute and then you’re there for hours.'
We know that children need time, space and permission to play outside (see the Best Play report, Play England): and by playing, climbing trees, counting bugs and ants they develop a deep and lasting connection with nature.
Could we find a readily available mechanism that helps create these little oases of time? If nature lacks a Like button, perhaps we can use social media's not-so-secret weapon, connectivity, to bring more people outside, enjoying nature.
Many of the families who come on our Wilds Walks say the thing they most appreciate about the programme is the time it allows them to enjoy a sense of community that it engenders; being in nature is an extra, welcomed, pleasure.
Time spent alone can be wonderful, and for a child, solitude can mean a chance to engage in deep play and explore the world unencumbered, but in the main we still seek connections, reflection, friendship. Someone to share a sunrise with.
At Outdoor People we create communities who see the value of being outdoors, and encourage each other to go outside more often. Unquestionably, our projects wouldn't function without online social networks to communicate and share - but active engagement with nature is always the end goal. By encouraging each other to actively engage – to come on a Family Wild Walk – friends and friends-to-be can help make the experience of nature come alive.
Photo https://unsplash.com/@lukeelliscraven; stats for Instagram taken from Brandwatch.