By Nora Ward and Ramiro D Crego
We love David Attenborough. If you don’t know him, he is an English broadcaster, naturalist and scientist that narrates and appears in lots of nature documentaries. He is pretty great and has spent basically all of his life advocating a love of nature and campaigning for its protection
We just finished watching another of his amazing documentaries online.
The footage is gorgeous: a blue whale gliding magnificently through a still ocean, brightly colored birds performing spectacular mating rituals, exotic insects perching on strange and wonderful plants. We love nature, thus, it’s a pleasure to watch documentaries showing the beauty of different natural places and its biodiversity around the world. It’s also beautiful to perceive the passion Attenborough transmits for what he loves. And because we think that one of the solutions to tackle environmental problems is to reconnect humans with nature, we wonder if documentaries are a good vehicle to that goal.
Well, it doesn’t take too much thinking to realize that the answer is NO.
But, why not?
We live in a society where most of what we learn, listen, and see comes from a screen of some kind. And with more than half of the seven billion people inhabiting this planet living in cities — including us — there are less and less opportunities for natural experiences.
Although we don’t actually have a TV, we spend a lot of time working on a computer and watching videos online. It can be hard sometimes to find time to go outside to the park in the routine of urban life. For this reason, our perception of the world is somewhat shaped by what we watch on a screen. Not only does it shape our understanding of freedom and happiness, but also our perception of beauty and our relationship with nature.
And although this is bad for us, it is especially problematic for children. Childhood is that period of life where we learn how to relate to the environment around us. We remember growing up and spending days climbing trees and investigating insects and birds with curious eyes. But now, many children are spending most of their time in front of a screen (in some cases, up to 70 hours a week!) This time in front of a screen is replacing more traditional childhood pastimes, like being outside, playing hide and seek, climbing trees, and building forts.
Remember when we used to go out and build forts??!! So much fun!
David Sobel, professor at Antioch University, New England, has studied outdoor behaviors such as these and the effects of their replacement with more screen-related, indoor, activities. According to him, children love to build forts because it is a natural tendency to explore the natural environment, test abilities, practice problem-solving, and develop creativity. Now that these behaviors are beginning to be replaced, children are losing out on some vital parts of this development. Although video and indoor games can replicate these to some extent, they don’t allow for the full natural experience, and specifically they don’t allow for children to get to know the world around them on their own terms. When you create a fort, he says, it is reflective of an instinctive drive to create a home in the world that is away from the home that your parents provided for you. It represents, in other words, one of the first attempts at independence. When you make a fort, or den, or hideout, it creates a uniquely personal connection to the land, and nurtures an affinity for that place, and also for the other inhabitants of that place, whether that be a tree, a bug, a bird’s nest, etc.
When this childhood experience is replaced by an indoor or online activity, Sobel argues that it can actually stunt the emotional development of empathy for other creatures, as well as create an indifference to the natural world around them.
According to other studies, the lack of exposure to nature impedes the development of the immune system, as contact with certain germs in childhood is thought to help strengthen the immune system and protect children from developing allergies and asthma.
And the list of proven benefits of nature exposure during childhood doesn’t stop there. It can also include: better concentration, increased cognitive development, highly developed imagination, better sociability, autonomy, etc.
But what has this got to do with documentaries?
Well, nature documentaries — although they are visually stunning and educational — can be part of the problem too. By providing a natural experience without having to actually leave your house, it can create a concept of nature that is disconnected from you and/or something that is far away, behind a screen somewhere. It can also inadvertently put forth the idea that you can experience nature without really ever experiencing nature.
One of the biggest reasons for this is that love is shaped by perception and identification. It has been shown again and again that children who do not have direct contact — with all five senses — with nature at young age are less likely to be interested in nature as adults. You cannot fully appreciate or love something if you haven’t ever really immersed yourself in it through identification. Further, many documentaries place an emphasis on the exotic: blue whales, lions, etc. As a result, the beauty that surrounds us often goes unperceived because we have this idea that the majesty of nature is far away, on the plains of Africa or on a tropical island somewhere. But there is beauty and majesty nearby also: in the backyard, at the nearby park, or in the tree outside your backdoor.
So, we are going to enjoy David and his astonishing documentaries, but also keep going outside our home, getting to the closest spot full of nature, and discovering the beauty of the nature that surrounds us. And we encourage you also. Watch the activity of a bird building their nest for the spring, hear the sound of the water running through a creek, the smell of a flower, interact with another non-human being, etc. You may just feel amazing!