Garden a learning place

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 11:48 17/01/2014
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ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
DOWN TO EARTH: Finn Cunningham, 7, left, and Connor Cunningham, 8, run barefoot through Nelson’s Queens Gardens.

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Home and Garden

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Pardon? Did I really read in the Nelson Mail that (some) Nelson children are so molly-coddled they cry because running on grass hurts their bare feet, as reported by Nelson phys-ed keen bean Lee Corlett?

Now, as anyone who has had kids at Nelson schools will be aware, Mr Corlett's got plenty of phys-ed cred to know what he's talking about and, I have to say, when I think about his observations, I guess I'm not that surprised.

New age, namby-pamby, molly-coddled kids are everywhere but, guess what, they have to grow up like the rest of us and face the every day challenges of life in the danger lane.

While molly-coddling not only makes kids fat, as Mr Corlett and just about any obesity-related research findings have been telling us for years, it also makes them less able to decide things for themselves and make a reasonable risk assessment (noun: a systematic process of evaluating the potential risks that may be involved in a projected activity or undertaking - Oxford Dictionary).

Regardless of how lazy and fat kids might get and how much they might loathe exercise, they still have to face a life time of assessing risk.

While whole disciplines have developed around risk assessment (think actuaries, insurance and earthquakes, engineering, architecture and mountaineering as well as international diplomacy), assessing risk is also inherent in everything we do.

I'm no child psychologist but, as a parent, even I can see that risk assessment for kids starts as soon as they can feel, sniff, and start putting stuff in their mouths.

Isn't that - if you follow Darwin's theory - how and why our senses developed in the first place, for assessing risk and survival in the jungle of life? It's all about adaptive behaviour, learning to read the environment around us for cues that are advantageous to or disadvantageous for survival. We learn to look for things that give us an adaptive advantage.

Molly-coddling kids robs them of learning to be risk aware and risk averse. If we fail to recognise and respond to hazardous cues in the environment, if we can't recognise danger, then the extreme, inevitable outcome is that our genes die out with us.

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Which brings me to the garden, the contrived equivalent of the jungle, where we all started. The garden, for those fortunate enough to have one, is where kids get the chance to experiment with life and find out for themselves how to assess risk and experience the consequences when they get it wrong. It's the perfect place to learn about risk assessment.

Now, before the politically correct police start emailing my inbox, I concede that there are some very real risks in the home garden, with fatal outcomes if kids make the wrong choices or have bad luck, which, unfortunately, goes with life.

Whilst not wishing to diminish the real risks and possibilities of bad luck, I happen to think the garden is also the ideal place where kids can learn to make mistakes with minimally bad outcomes and, presumably, in the company of caring adults.

The garden is where kids learn to recognise what environmental psychologist James Gibson defined as "affordances", or opportunities, in his theory and 1970s publication The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

Affordances, he said, were "action possibilities" present in the environment, that children learn to recognise and use when interacting with the world around them.

A lawn, for example, provides, or "affords", a place to run barefoot, but it also presents danger, where kids learn, by experience, to avoid prickles and bees.

A tree in the garden "affords" an opportunity for climbing, but also offers risk and danger, where children learn to assess the risk of a potential fall, literally one step at a time, thus developing survival skills.

My own daughters not only made huts, thankfully without falling out of trees, but also learnt to avoid bees and recognise poisonous plants, how to hammer a nail and how to light a fire without burning down the neighbourhood. Whilst fire lighting, sadly, might now be a controlled activity, it also offers (affords) a very basic learning opportunity about risk aversion.

However, whilst childhood interaction with the natural environment might be fertile ground for learning to be risk averse in our daily lives, it's also probably a diminishing one globally.

Given the human population apparently crossed the threshold from rural living to become a majority of urban dwellers some time around 2010, our opportunities to remain connected to and interact with the natural environment will surely diminish.

Having a garden to grow grass may seem a God given right in this country, but for millions of urbanites and their children who live in high rise apartments, the chance to run barefoot on it is as foreign as lighting a fire.

Which makes me wonder where our future is going if some children in Nelson - where there is limitless scope for interacting with the natural environment - have already reached the point where they can't cope with going barefoot on the grass.

Isn't teaching your kids to cope, be independent and make good, risk-averse decisions on anything in life, starting with their interaction with the garden environment, a basic role of any parent? And, if you haven't got a garden of your own, there are plenty of public parks and gardens in Nelson to get among it. All it costs you is some time with your kids.

And, rather than molly-coddling your kids, surely the aim of good parenting is to teach your children to make good, risk averse decisions and make yourself redundant as a parent.

- Nelson

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