Exploring nature in childhood

Authored by Sarah Bell  (originally for the Moorvision Spring 2018 Newsletter)

In recent years, there have been growing calls for children to ‘re-connect’ with nature, often in the name of health and wellbeing. This has catalysed initiatives such as “The Wild Network” in the UK and the “Children & Nature Network” in the US. 

Although Sensing Nature has focused on the experiences of adults with sight impairment, many of the stories shared by participants have emphasised the importance of childhood nature encounters. Here we share some of the themes apparent in the stories of those who were born with sight impairment, including conditions such as glaucoma, congenital cataracts, Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, retinopathy of prematurity, coloboma and retinal detachment.  

Perhaps the most common memories shared by participants have been the moments of freedom experienced in nature as a child, be it through exploring and getting to know their back garden, or being able to run around fields and open beaches without having to worry too much about obstacles, steep drops or hard landings. As one participant recalled:

When I was very small, I used to love it if my parents took me up on the Downs, and then they’d let go of my hand, and I could just trot along the path at my own speed. I thought I was going really fast, but I’m sure I wasn’t! But it was the freedom that nothing would hurt me, nothing would run me over, or anything. It was just lovely.”

Other participants discussed the importance of being able to explore and take risks as a child, to imagine, play freely and move in three-dimensional space. As illustrated in the quote below, these experiences were rarely without risk but many participants attributed their ability to manage and negotiate nature’s challenges in adulthood to such opportunities:

It taught us all about managing risk for ourselves, and taking risks. And also other things as well, which people take for granted, like spatial awareness, three dimensionality, motion, movement, all that kind of thing…

"As blind children, you go one of two ways. You either don’t get to experience a lot of movement and self-exploration, in which case your perception of the world becomes very limited, or you do, in which case you will have accidents, you will fall out of trees, you will fall off bikes, you will hurt yourself...

"But at the same time, you learn, both from the accidents you’ve had, but also from the hours and hours and hours of exploration... I know that I’m very glad that I was allowed to do a lot of self-exploration… If you don’t have those opportunities when you’re young, you won’t want, or even know they exist, or be equipped to take advantage of them when you’re older.” 

Connections to nature are thought to develop through both enjoyment of nature settings and a sense of empathy for nature’s many plants and creatures.  This empathy was evident amongst several participants, often arising through multisensory opportunities to engage with nature in childhood: 

There was a time when I was at boarding school that somebody had found an injured bird… it was just on our path up to our house at school. And I remember having a look, and stroking it, and picking it up, and holding it close to me. And I could feel its heartbeat. And how fragile it was and how beautiful, and how soft.

"Subsequently it died, and I was absolutely heartbroken… And I suppose that made me so much more aware of the fragility of life, the fragility of those tiny creatures, how beautiful they are. It gave me the opportunity to feel one and - when you can’t see very well, so much of your seeing is done through your hands.” 

Other participants emphasised the feelings of companionship and comfort experienced through time spent with nature as a child, be it with living animals such as birds and pets, or with particular trees that offered a sense of stability and security:

I absolutely adore trees… I used to love to climb them. I used to get told off for climbing them. But, yes, I used to like to climb them in the orchard, the apple trees were easy to climb. And I loved getting up into them and hiding away in the apple trees… the trees were like friends. They sheltered you and they supported you.”

These findings suggest that childhood experiences, such as those supported by Moorvision, are invaluable in promoting opportunities to build meaningful relationships with nature that last into adulthood. 

Recognising this, we are organising a one-day festival of more-than-visual nature at the Eden Project in November 2018, which will celebrate opportunities to connect with nature across the senses, from musical plants to rain forest quests, botanical tastings and creative adventures.

Organised in collaboration with the Eden Project, the Sensory Trust, I Love Nature, and Sound Artist Justin Wiggan, the day will facilitate these engaging experiences with the many different plants, microclimates and sensory encounters available around the Eden Project.

More details will be posted online soon so do check back over the next few weeks!