Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

Deepak Dalal, a chemical engineer from an American university decided that Indian writers had never used the great Indian outdoors as settings for children’s stories. His books, Sahyadri Adventure, Anirudh’s Dream, and Koleshwar Secret, hope to bring alive not just the outdoors but ecological issues too. They have become course books in some schools. It hardly takes an effort to realise why Dalal’s books are headed for success: because kids don’t get a chance to experience the outdoors, they don’t know what it is to climb a tree and come face-to- face with a gecko, or run up a hill and feel the wind become an enemy or an ally. Result: a lack of regular physical activity, a low understanding of the environment and the very real threat of adolescent obesity.
In a recent survey of school children in the 5-14 age group done by EduSport, a Bangalore-based integrated sports management service, 25 per cent of the children above eight years were found to be either obese or overweight (see box ‘Shape of things to come’ for details of the survey).

While the reason for the growing rate of obesity is the general lack of access to physical activity, Arvind Krishnan, founder of Runners for Life that encourages people to take to marathon running, an outdoor activity that requires little or no equipment and infrastructure, thinks that kids today lead high-pressure lives.

“Too many things to go for, each taking longer; commutes (even to school) increasing; meeting new people on a regular basis (facebook, etc) and thus many more people and initiatives to stay on top off. What falls off the table in such  circumstances is play. Much like the young adults who gave up play and became the paunchy 40-year-olds of today, these kids are hitting the same trajectory but earlier and faster,” he explains.

The fall out of such circumstances is not unusual. Dalal is not the only one who has figured out the need to fill the gap. Vijay Kulkarni, the person behind Aavishkaar Camps, an initiative that has been educating children about the outdoors for the last decade, says: “Most kids are aware of nature, thanks to channels like Discovery and NatGeo. They also learn a lot in school and once they are out there in the forest, they begin to relate to what they have seen and learnt.” He takes more than 1,000 children each year to experience the outdoors. But, according to him, a very small percentage, maybe just 2 odd kids in a group of 50, actually know the different animals and species.
So two major issues crop up due to the lack of easy access to the outdoors: obesity that can be attributed to low levels of activity, and a distinct lack of appreciation for the environment resulting in children being unable to even tell the difference between a centipede and a caterpillar.

A completely unexpected outcome of the outdoor-environmental ignorance-health dynamics has been the way it has begun to reshape outdoor activities and sports. For example, Tarun Huku, founder of ChotaGolf has begun to make an expensive sport like golf accessible to school children. “Golf is a great low-impact way to develop cardio activity, core stability, balance and focus that is necessary to function effectively and reduce the risk of health concerns,” says Huku.
During a round of golf a person walks about five miles. It takes four hours to complete 18 holes and during that time a golfer burns roughly 352 calories an hour. A round of golf burns approximately 1404 calories.

But the beauty of a golf course, says Huku, is that it is like a giant air purification system. Most golf courses have thousands of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Literally tens of varieties exist on any golf course. It is like a mini Lal Bagh with a lot more fun. In addition to the trees and shrubs, golf courses have water bodies that usually have resident water birds and fish. “I have rarely seen a sullen child on a golf course,” says Huku, “They are so happy being in these natural surroundings that pique their curiosity.”

Not surprisingly, the fall out has also been a dramatic growth in businesses and organisations (see box ‘Help, naturally…’) that ensure kids have a chance to enjoy nature, flex their limbs and fill their minds with a concern for the environment.

According to Tarun Chandna, founder, InMe, one of the country’s leading companies that introduce children to the outdoors, for many children today, it’s about experiencing things for the first time — it could be being bitten by a leech or touching a snake or being stung by stinging nettles or using cow dung to make a fire. Chandna should know (see box ‘Look ma, I’m all grown-up now!’). His company takes thousands of kids to nature camps across the country and the kids always come back with their rucksacks full of little things made from nature or notebooks filled with drawings of birds, bugs and flowers. Many of them come back with an appreciation for simple camp food. And quite a few have been known to return with lowered body weight.

The outdoors is not about trying to turn children into biologists and naturalists. It’s just about enjoying what is free, all around us and should be a part of life.
As Kulkarni of Aavishkaar says, “We are satisfied if the kid appreciates the sound of a waterfall deep in the jungle and wishes to hear more of it in the years to come.”

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