I’m sitting, staring intently at the red and white striped bobber floating just at the surface of the water. It rocks soporifically in time with the boat lulling me to near sleep until my five year old eyes are distracted by the shiny blue dragonflies tracing lazy figure eights overhead. That’s when it happens. The rod jolts in my hands and I panic as I see the tip of it arcing towards the water, the red and white float barely visible in the green depths. The ensuing chaos makes minutes seem like seconds. I furiously crank the reel. A vague shadowy outline emerges in the murky water and turns suddenly to fins and teeth. Impossibly, the shadow is then in my hands: slimy, and supple, a white belly and spotted sides. Just as quickly it is over. A splash and a flip of the tail disappearing into the depths. My first fish. I am hooked.
Catching a fish for the first time was a formative moment in my own life, but worldwide, fewer and fewer children are experiencing this. And it’s not just limited to fishing. With urbanization and modernization, people, especially children, are becoming increasingly disassociated from nature. It is a phenomenon known as ‘extinction of experience’. From Japan to the United Kingdom to Australia to the United States, the numbers are telling: over the course of just ten years, there have been consistent declines of up to 20% in the number of children who have had core experiences with nature, including everything from birdwatching to tree climbing to fishing.
Why should the number of children visiting parks, watching birds, and climbing trees concern us? Put simply, children that experience nature form bonds with it. Interactions with the natural world are strongly linked to positive mental and physical health outcomes: people that walk their dogs in nature reserves, have lunch outside in the park, stop to smell the flowers and watch the birds, or spend the weekend hiking or fishing are happier and healthier. Not only that, they are more engaged with environmental issues and more likely to have pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. People who are in contact with nature are more likely to recycle, donate money to environmental causes, and to support pro-environment legislation that is also vital for conserving those ecosystems that provide essential services to society like conserving wetlands that help to maintain clean drinking water reserves. And it doesn’t take a lot to elicit these effects. Just a few positive experiences with nature can result in substantial, long-term changes to a person’s attitudes and behaviours. The moral of the story? For the sake of yourself and society, get out and enjoy nature, whether it is forest, mountains, beaches, or the neighbourhood park!