Dr Dimity Williams is a GP on a mission.
Snow, rain or sunshine, children up to the age of seven attending Europe’s forest schools spend 80% of their day outdoors learning to understand and care for the natural world, and coping with adversity.
In some hardline Scandinavian schools, which started in the 1950s, the class head inside only when it drops below -10C.
This is the extreme end of what is now a global movement in nature pedagogy.
But there are gentler versions: Forest schooling is becoming popular in the UK and US as well as in Australia, where it is called bush kinder.
It makes a lot of sense to Melbourne GP Dr Dimity Williams, a mother of three, who worries today’s youngsters spend too much time curled up indoors in front of screens.
“The health consequences are not just obesity but also mental health problems like anxiety and depression,” she says.
These disorders were uncommon 20 years ago during her paediatrics training, but she now sees them often in suburban general practice, in both children and adults.
Contemporary society is characterised by a general disconnect from nature, says Dimity, who is a co-founder of the Kids in Nature Network and Victoria’s Nature Play Week.
It might be the reason so many people seem to not care about the destruction of the natural world, including through climate change, she says.
Many of today’s new parents didn’t have the freedom or immersion in nature that Dimity’s generation had.
“I grew up in a suburb of Melbourne which had an area of bushland and a neglected creek, and local kids gathered there to play. I remember the freedom and the space,” she says.
It seems children these days need more encouragement to play with mud pies and build bush cubbyhouses.
If that’s what it takes, Dimity is all for it. She’s seen Nature Play Week, which started in 2014, become an annual event championing outdoor activities.
“We need to encourage children to play in the natural environment and be more physically active,” she says. “Just walking on rough surfaces and jumping from rock to rock benefits balance and proprioception.”
In the US, Dimity says, primary care paediatricians issue nature prescriptions — “half an hour in the park three times a week”.
But the benefits go beyond strengthening young bodies. Research has shown that free play in nature, which includes risk-taking and problem-solving, develops resilience and boosts the ability to learn.
Dimity, who is the biodiversity convenor of Doctors for the Environment Australia, has fostered the idea in her own community and took it further in a fellowship with Melbourne’s Centre for Sustainability Leadership.
There has been a positive response from government, such as Victoria’s 2017 Memorandum for Health and Nature.
Dimity was involved in writing submissions for that and likes to think she helped shape the thinking.
Dr Dimity Williams works as a GP in Melbourne, is the Biodiversity Convenor for Doctors for the Environment Australia and a Co-Founder of the Kids in Nature Network.
First published in Medical Observer on 15 November 2017