Children, places and possessions

Getting children into the outdoors can inspire them to look after both places and possessions, writes Jules Pretty.

©National Trust Images/John Millar

©National Trust Images/John Millar

There are three distinct ages of childhood, each with differing implications for adult behaviour and public policy.

i) First Age of childhood (0 to 5 years) – this is when attachment, security and nurture are most important. The parental sphere of influence is dominant, and so relations between parent and child are vital for children’s development (one lesson – go back to old style prams where babies and toddlers face the parent or carer, not looking out at traffic).

ii) Second Age of childhood (6 to 11 years) – this is when memories are first laid down in continuous narratives. Children engage more outside the parental sphere of control, and explore their environments to make memories and develop cognitive capacities.

iii) Third Age of childhood (12 to 18 years) – this is when children increasingly disengage from parents as they seek both independence (from existing structures) and inclusion (in peer social networks).

Today, two things are happening in the Second Age – less time is being spent in nature; more children are growing up with expectations that material consumption can continue in its current form. Yet consumption patterns worldwide are now converging on those typical in affluent countries. These levels are not sustainable for a single planet. People are keeping things less, throwing them away more.

All ages are spending less time in natural places today, yet children have become the most disconnected, no longer ranging free as they once did. In this way, memories of place are not formed, attachments no longer created, attention distracted. A simple question rests at the centre of a need for substantially different consumption patterns: how to persuade us all to retain possessions for longer, and look after places more?

Attention that leads to attachment could help, and cathexis, the process of charging an object or place with emotional energy, produces meaning. And possessions and places with meaning tend not to be substituted, and therefore are more likely to be kept and protected for a long time. This in turn leads to greater well-being – cherished possessions and places produce greater well-being.

Thus, if places and possessions are to be looked after more, we will need to find ways of increasing memory creation. And children will not create memories of green places if they are not out in them. Open the doors, get outside, arrange school and community trips, give the outdoors greater meaning. Exploring nature also allows for unstructured play, generating a sense of freedom, independence and inner strength which children can draw upon when experiencing future stress.

There may be further benefits: the interaction between the environment and children’s physical activity is complex. What is now established is the importance of physical activity to children’s health at all stages. Physical activity is strongly related to both the fitness and the fatness of children, as well as cognitive development. Both fitness and fatness track into adulthood where they become risk factors for metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease and early mortality. More physically-active children are likely to be better behaved. They may as adults then look after places and possessions more.

Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, author of This Luminous Coast (2011) and The Earth Only Endures (2007). Follow him on Twitter @julespretty1.

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