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Climate change and early childhood development – the answer is in the trees.

From Caroline Essame, CEO of CreateCATT at ARNEC in Vietnam

One of the key themes at this year’s Asia-Pacific Regional Network on Early Childhood Development (ARNEC) conference here in Hanoi, Vietnam, has been on climate change. How young children are the most vulnerable in natural disasters, most at risk from increasing urbanization and air pollution and some of the least represented in climate change policies and discussions. It has therefore been inspiring, and also sobering, to hear so many stakeholders advocating for early childhood to be seen as central to any debate on the environments that these children are being born into, as these children are the future.

The statistics are that 90% of the world’s population are affected by air pollution causing 7 million deaths a year, an increased prevalence of disease and memory loss - particularly if you live near a main road - disturbing figures and by 2050 75% of us will live in cities. It has been quite depressing to see the facts and fear for our children and children’s children. It was in this context that I spoke yesterday on nature and the brain and how technology and urbanisation are impacting child development. To give credit to Prince Charles, who used to be laughed about in some circles for listening and talking to the trees, I believe the answer is in the nature if we will but listen.

I was the only Occupational Therapist in the conference, and as a profession that is all about making things better, in my presentation I decided to turn the conversation from nature deficit disorder being a problem to the fact that nature is showing us the solution. We know that being in nature produces serotonin which is the regulating calming hormone that balances the stress hormone cortisone- it is one of the answers to toxic stress. We know from a sensory integration perspective that nature is the perfect environment to learn about our bodies and build our brains, we learn about sound in all its dimensions, we develop vestibular systems by walking on different and uneven surfaces and from a visual perspective natural light ensures we do not develop myopia. From a social and emotional perspective nature soothes by reducing our heartbeat, we can express big feelings in open spaces that can be absorbed in the air rather than bounce off cement walls in small rooms and hit us in the face again. We also have research that shows that people who live near green spaces live longer, feel better and it even helps children with ADHD.

We are a part of nature and we need to ensure children do not see it only as the tyrant of a cyclone, the fear of rising sea levels or as polluted air. The trees are talking and we need to listen for the sake of our children.

Take them into the forests, let them climb trees, plant fruit trees in their school playgrounds. Teach outside, play outside. Build schools with driveways away from main roads and line the pavements not only with trees but plant bushes at children’s height. And if in low resourced areas, such as in migratory camps or tower blocks in poor cities, help children to plant seeds and watch them grow, they will be metaphors of hope, they will teach patience and wonder and even a small plant will help the brain release serotonin when kept in a classroom to counter the toxic stress that climate change is bringing. The answer is in the trees – we must listen.

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