Fiona McCade: It’s a jungle out there, if anyone’s interested

Lack of outdoors activity affecting children's relationship with nature. Picture: Esme Allen
Lack of outdoors activity affecting children's relationship with nature. Picture: Esme Allen
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WHEN my son was three years old, he announced that he was very disappointed in the quality of parenting he was receiving. “Fed up of the both of you,” he grumbled. “Want to go live in the jungle.”

This wish for a freer existence in more tropical climes came after Junior had watched Disney’s The Jungle Book DVD (back to back screenings, every day, for about six weeks) and realised that if you don’t mind being raised by wolves, bears and panthers, and being attacked by snakes and tigers, you can have a really fun time.

Since we couldn’t find any wolves, bears or panthers willing to take him on (and believe me, we tried), we did the next best thing and took him to Edinburgh’s own sub-tropical paradise: the Royal Botanic Garden. “Look!” we cried, “We can have outdoor fun! Just like Mowgli!” But the wonderful world of nature was a bit chilly and disappointingly panther-free, so he squawked incessantly. We bought him an ice-cream and back home he came, to the wonderful world of Disney.

Junior is now six and the struggle continues to get him out of the house. The trouble is, he’s genuinely not interested in playing outside. In order to get a bit of fresh air into him, we drag him out for walks and pretend that we’re on adventures. We stalk imaginary dinosaurs; we find Ewok poo in the forests of Endor; we have water-pistol shoot-outs. We go to the beach (which he accepts), parks (which he endures) and other people’s gardens (which frustrates him, because why on Earth would you be in the garden when there’s a television just a few yards away?). We try, really we do.

However, I may not be trying hard enough, because it looks like my child is suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). In its Natural Childhood report, the National Trust south of the Border suggests that our children’s ability to learn and to be creative is being affected, because so many of them have no relationship with nature. Their largely sedentary lifestyle is also affecting their health, as levels of obesity skyrocket. Reasons for NDD include parental over-protectiveness, too much traffic on our roads – which forces children to take refuge inside for their own safety – and the ubiquitousness of technology-based entertainment.

No PlayStation, Nintendo DS, or even Wii Fit can replace the sort of active lifestyle, everyday adventure and controlled risk-taking that so many of my generation enjoyed in the 1970s – what we now see as a “Golden Age” of childhood. I feel for the National Trust when it pleads with us to “Save children’s relationship with the outdoors”, but what more can I do when my little bleeder doesn’t want to budge?

My son is not a sociopath; he just prefers to play with his friends indoors. I can drag him up hill and down dale, but I can’t make him like it.

However, there is one thing I can do. I can wait.

You see, I have an idea what will happen to my little hot-house flower. This is because – deep breath, big confession coming up – I used to be exactly the same.

Not only me, but my husband, too. Neither of us liked playing out much. Despite growing up in the Golden Age of Childhood, we weren’t often out there getting our knees dirty. We were in the cinema, gawping at Star Wars; or drawing, or reading, or watching JR get shot.

And yet, somehow, we not only survived, we both miraculously turned into adults who love a ten-mile hike (well, when it’s dry).

So although I share the National Trust’s concern – it is vital that we give every child the chance to experience the natural world – I’m not going to get angst-ridden over my own lad’s lack of interest in the great outdoors. His time will come.

Anyway, even Mowgli didn’t hang around in the jungle longer than he had to. What did he do as soon as he saw the man-village? He turned his back on Baloo and all the wonders of nature and followed that little girl. She probably had a PlayStation.