Bored to death

By Briony Penn, September 2012

Victoria becomes a hub for re-connecting children to nature.

When the CBC asked Washington DC resident Roger Wood to describe the impacts that the summer’s freak storms, heat waves and electrical outages were having on his family, his response was not one that earlier generations could ever have anticipated. He replied that his three-year-old son Jordan “was bored.” Wood recounted how Jordan, cut off from television, internet and video games was miserable, revived only by the Cooling Centre where the Boys and Girls Club had set up a generator-run, air-conditioned computer room. 

In past generations, a three year old’s reaction to natural disasters might have been many things, but it is hard to imagine boredom being a top contender. Jordan, however, is one of the 7-7 Generation—a term coined by Robert Bateman for the launch of his foundation’s outreach program for re-engaging people with nature. 7-7 describes the seven hours a day, seven days a week that children are now sitting in front of a screen. Why is the 82-year-old Canadian icon of wildlife art throwing his name, art and energy at this cause? Because, argues Bateman, the lives of kids like Jordan might depend on it—bored to death is now a distinct possibility.

“Kids have never in the history of the Earth had such high odds of dying before their parents—from obesity, early onset diabetes, heart disease, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide and other diseases associated with inactivity inside,” says Bateman. According to the recent spate of research into the 7-7 Generation, children now spend less than one hour a week outside, if at all, and that hour will be structured, probably on a field where nature has a tenuous hold. 

Research also indicates that this disconnect with nature leads to less resourcefulness, less self-sufficiency and less creativity—which leads to additional survival challenges. How are these kids going to develop even the simplest skills for an increasingly unstable world, like regulating their body temperature without air conditioning? Jordan, for example, has probably had little opportunity to do what humans have done for the last half million years when it gets hot—cool off in the shade of a forest, take a refreshing dip in a river, or go swim in the sea near cooler ocean breezes. 

As Bateman points out, “Nature will be throwing some hardballs at kids and they won’t even know what hit them.” The future is only going to get more challenging—with increasing storm events and infrastructure failures, not just blackouts but shortages of water, food and interruption of transportation routes. “If kids ‘know’ anything of nature it will be derived from second-hand experience that will offer little in the way of coping with the real thing,” he argues. 

Disconnection with nature and the corresponding lack of skills to adapt are problems that have been around for a while, but a benchmark has been reached, below which, Bateman suggests, we cannot afford to fall any further. To that end, the Bateman Foundation has been throwing its support behind the many organizations that help get people outside—from Scouts Canada to Parks Canada and Outward Bound to Canadian Wildlife Federation. 

That support takes a variety of forms across Canada, from urban nature trail programs in Toronto to the continuing research affiliation with Royal Roads. For Victorians, the big news is that the operational hub of the foundation—the Bateman Centre—will be opening next spring in the newly renovated CPR building in the downtown core (see www.batemancentre.org). The Centre will showcase the art and culture of nature by international artists, including a permanent rotating collection of Bateman’s work on the ground floor, while offices above will provide a clearing-house for the research, pilots and programs whose central focus is helping people get back into nature. Bateman’s art has traditionally proven a crowd pleaser, witnessed at the record-breaking exhibits of the Smithsonian and the McMichael Collection. Getting people in the door through the emotional appeal of art and culture is the first step to getting them back out that door into nature. Executive director and past-pupil of Bateman, Paul Gilbert, says, “We want to create a chain of events in people’s lives that drives them back into the arms of nature.” 

The research into the trend away from nature points to a variety of causes, well documented in Richard Louv’s books (e.g. Last Child in the Woods), which have spawned the New Nature Movement and Children and Nature Network across North America. The path away from the wild has been long and multi-generational—paved by everything from reduced school budgets, political ideologies, fear of predation and litigation, to competition from the cyber world—as well as decreasing green spaces and lack of time and knowledge. 

Bateman argues that some of the solutions are not complicated. “I grew up in Toronto and my first experiences with nature were little pockets of wildness in the ravines.” That provided the catalyst for his interest, which was then nurtured in after-school programs. It was these first steps that eventually gained him experience allowing him to get a job at the Wildlife Research Station at Algonquin Park, develop strong friendships, a love for the natural world, and his own set of life and career skills—story telling, teaching and painting. 

In relation to nature being upstaged by computer and television screens, Gilbert says this is where the Foundation can really pioneer methods of engagement and help besieged institutions like Parks Canada or Scouts Canada fill up their parks and programs again. “We might have to engage at step one through electronic devices, but by step three, we hope that people will be outside and turning the devices off.” 

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the public face of his national foundation is in an urban core, where the majority of people live and have fewer opportunities to be in nature. The Bateman Centre will be located a stone’s throw from the parliament building where the foundation also hopes to focus some of its efforts. The mandate of the foundation is split between youth/families and adult leaders and policy makers. As Gilbert notes, “There has been too little too late for children, so we have to engage current leaders. This is becoming a top priority.”

In addition to the pilot of the Bateman urban trail program—an innovative stepped process for inner city youth—Bateman maps out various programs around the world that have proven successful, such as forest schools, transition towns, forest therapy and bioblitzes. Gilbert says the Foundation’s role is to assess new ideas and put things into action rather than just be a think tank. “We are a catalyst between theoretical possibilities and people doing the heavy lifting on the other side.” The heavy lifters have all realized that they are only reaching “the choir” and missing the 7-7 Generation. Says Gilbert, “There is a firewall between the majority of the population and nature, and we need to change that.” He thinks that some of the firewall has been built through clashes of values, and notes that “the unique thing about Bateman in this present political environment is that he is a mini-Switzerland where all sides of the political spectrum can feel welcome.” 

Bateman himself, having a large family with many grandchildren scattered across the country, recognizes the difficulties all Canadians face in getting back to nature. But he challenges families to do two simple things. First, set up a regular activity of taking your kids out for two hours every week to a local park; invite their friends and their families. You can get there on a bus and it doesn’t cost anything once you are there. There is no liability, the children are safe and that is two hours of healthy social activity. His other recommendation is to send your kids outside with friends after school and tell them to hang out in packs. “There is no record of any group abductions since the Pied Piper of Hamelin—on the other hand there are plenty of records of internet predations while your kids sit alone in front of a screen. What’s safer?”

The proof that nature can improve our children’s lives will be in the testing. Ground Zero is a place like Washington, hit hard by climate change and cutbacks to social programs. Given support, resources and workable ideas, will they be able to raise the bar for the next generation—increasing opportunities for healthy experiences outside? Here is Victoria’s chance, with our wealth of expertise and urban greenspaces, to test the hypothesis. It will be challenging,  and it won’t leave kids bored to death.

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.