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Little Primates

Little Primates

Miel Sahgal reflects on the role of teachers and parents in raising the next generation.

Photo: Public Domain.

We sat rock-still in the jeep on a crisp, spring morning, enveloped by the simultaneous silence and cacophony of the Indian forest. While most eyes scanned the lake’s shrubby horizon in wait of the gorgeous striped predator, mine were fixed on the antics of a nearby group of langurs. Eternally playful, the young ones fought and leaped, explored bits of prospective food, and occasionally eyed us with passing curiosity. The adults groomed each other languorously, fiercely protective of the youngest infants while giving the older ones a longer lead, allowing them to test their skills and boundaries. I could not help but think of our own little primates, the children of urban India.

When sanctioned free play, how similar our children are to other little primates – swinging on jungle gyms, creating their own games in multi-age groups, experimenting with social hierarchies, and watching fellow creatures of the natural world. That’s when we allow them to just ‘be’.  More often, however, the little humans in our care, children of privilege, spend many of their waking hours sitting in concrete classrooms, segregated by age and instructed about what to learn in preparation for the adult human life ahead. Their ‘play’ too is often organised and instructed, closely scrutinised by ‘helicoptering’ adults in man-made environments. And more so now than in any other time in history, our children are frequently sequestered indoors, captivated by blinking, beeping screens.

Given that our brains have not really changed a whole lot since our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), what are the impacts of a childhood seemingly out of touch with our instinctive primate selves and the natural environment? When the children in our care spend more time engaged with things made by humans rather than those made by nature, how does it affect their biology, psychology and the adults that they will eventually grow to become? Childhoods ripped apart from nature, the fabric of our existence, imply childhoods disconnected from our very source of life, and from every other living being on this planet we collectively call home.

Across the world parents, educationists and conservationists have grown increasingly concerned about the disconnection of children from nature, with Richard Louv and his influential book Last Child in the Woods starting the conversation about ‘nature deficit disorder’.  Several studies support the view that more time in nature will result not only in healthier children, increased attention spans, better academic performance and lower stress levels, but will also help raise a generation of individuals prepared to embrace the mantle of environmental stewardship so urgently needed in this era of ecological instability.

And it doesn’t take much effort. Once we acknowledge the need to nudge the children in our care towards more natural childhoods, little everyday actions follow suit. By exploring nature right under our noses, in school compounds and residential complexes, we can help children discover hidden treasures. Quietly following a butterfly, watching a spider’s web or lying face-down in the grass examining the world of mud and ants are all part of the process of piquing curiosity and slowly falling in love with nature. Teachers and parents could rope in a local naturalist or enthusiastic botany or zoology college student for a semi-structured neighbourhood nature walk. And there is no replacement for totally free play outdoors - swimming in the sea, clambering over rocks or even trying to scale a solo tree in a building compound.

If we, the adults in their lives, hold up a magnifying glass to celebrate the little things in life, it is likely that our children will find joy there too. Teachers and parents are a fortunate group of people with an opportunity to play a catalytic role in the next generation. We need to help our little primates switch off, unplug, de-schedule, get outdoors and just ‘be’. Nature will take care of the rest.

Photo: Atul Dhamankar.

Miel Sahgal is a parent, biophiliac and megaphone for children and nature.


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