The spirituality of nature and children

Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half of children a generation ago. In the following article Matt Freer, Environment Advisor to the diocese, explores the growing gap between children and nature, and asks what roles can the church play in response?

Nature Activities to use with children can be found here.

Earlier this year the National Trust launched a report entitled Natural Childhood, which explored ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – a term first coined by US based writer Richard Louv, in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods, to describe a growing dislocation between children and nature. For example, in the UK less than a quarter of children regularly use their local patch of nature compared to over a half of all adults when they were children.

In a single generation since the 1970s children’s ‘radius of activity’ or ‘home habitat’ – the area in which children are able to travel on their own – shrank to one-ninth of its former size. In 1971, 80% of 7-8 yr olds walked to school, often alone or with their friends, whereas two decades later fewer then 10% did so – almost all accompanied by their parents.

The reasons for this gap between children and nature are numerous. Changing attitudes to risk are cited. More gadgets, TV channels, the internet and probably more comfortable bedrooms, make it easier and more appealing for children to be indoors. Increased traffic, fewer parks and green spaces, larger school catchment areas (so friends live further away), as well as greater fear of crime and media coverage on ‘stranger danger’ – all make it harder and less appealing for children to be outdoors, and start to paint a picture as to why children are not outdoors as much as they might used to have been.

But does a disconnect with nature matter? Growing evidence suggests it does. Researchers have attributed, at least in part, increasing rates of obesity to a decrease in the time children spend outdoors, as well as an increase in Vitamin D deficiency. Childhood behavioural ‘disorders’ have also been linked to an absence of time in nature. Other less tangible consequences include declining emotional resilience and a declining ability to assess risk – both vital life skills. There are also implications for wider environmental issues. People don’t tend to protect what they don’t care about, and you don’t tend to care about what you have never experienced.

But are there also spiritual implications of this disconnection with nature? An important characteristic of the natural world is that it doesn’t come with an instruction manual, or a set range of possible outcomes; instead it holds infinite possibilities. Through nature, we are introduced to transcendence, in the sense that there is something more going on than the individual. All of which is important to spiritual growth.

Research into spiritual experiences of childhood has perhaps unsurprisingly found that many transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature. And it isn’t just exposure to the natural world in its vast beauty – majestic mountains, wild forests, vast sea views – but also far more ordinary natural surroundings, for example, in the back garden, staring at the sky or watching animals.

I’m sure many readers can recall significant moments when something that amazed you has affected your spiritual journey. Wonder and awe are often sources for our spiritual growth – and often that wonder and awe stems from our relationship with nature. Most people are either awakened to or are strengthened in their spiritual journey by experiences in the natural world.

In light of that what are the implications of a growing nature gap on our spiritual development, and that of our children? Are we in danger of loosing, or at least missing opportunities for, the sense of awe and wonder that is so important to spiritual growth?

What role can the church play in providing space to encounter nature? We would love to hear your ideas and responses – join in the discussion below and share your ideas.

First published in the July 2012 edition of The Door.

Matt Freer is the Environment Advisor for the Diocese of Oxford. He and his wife have bought together a range of Nature Activities aimed at nurturing a sense of awe and wonder to use with children (and adults) – you can find them at:

1 reply
  1. David Curry says:

    I was inspired by the Communities of the Mystic Christ Wheel of the Year and I am planning to resurrect the old Christian Festivals and celebrating these events as they were meant to be celebrated – with contact with nature and food. Lammas is a good case in point – first fruits, harvest, autumn. cooking bread (healthy eating), colours/art etc. The ‘Living Churchyard’ and ‘Caring for God’s Acre’ schemes have an important role to play in developing a sense of awe and wonder in children and aults alike.


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