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Born to be unplugged: On exposure to nature and the mental health of children
In Egypt, we need to move away from the idea that nature means green spaces

If we try to imagine, as if constructing a movie reel, what a typical middle-class, Cairene child’s visual experience of the world is like on a typical day, it would probably consist mostly of the following images: the inside of their homes, the faces of family members, the streets of Cairo with their traffic, smoke and litter, their school buildings and classrooms, some more faces, their books, and, of course, hours upon hours of screen time split between TV, computers and smart devices.

If they are lucky, our typical middle-class child might spend a few days by the beach along the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, perhaps once or twice a year. Apart from that, they are hardly ever immersed in natural landscapes such as deserts, mountains, green spaces or oceans. At the same time, many parents and educators of children complain that kids are becoming more hyperactive, have shorter attention spans, poor social skills and higher anxiety levels in general. Could the two patterns be linked?

There is a good deal of evidence from biological and social sciences of the impact of nature on children and some of it is quite surprising. Studies show that parents, mental health professionals and researchers in various fields find that children are calmer, more creative, more confident and even kinder to each other when they spend time playing outdoors in green spaces. For example, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that participants who were shown slides of natural scenery for 10 minutes had higher activity in the part of the nervous system that is active in a state of relaxation — their parasympathetic nervous system. Meanwhile, participants who were not shown these images showed higher activity in their sympathetic nervous system, which is active during stressful “fight or flight” states.

There is also plenty of evidence showing that exposure to nature appears to have a significant positive impact on children’s learning abilities and academic performance. This is true even for children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Researchers from the University of Illinois have found that being in nature prevents “attention fatigue” by engaging the mind with its surroundings with less effort than required in other activities, and, over time, this improves children’s ability to focus and reduces their impulsivity. Interacting with nature in the educational process itself also seems to be particularly successful in engaging students who are otherwise disinterested or disconnected from the school system.

It is something of a mystery why nature has such a powerful impact on our mental health, why beautiful landscapes inspire awe in us and why they make most of us feel relaxed, joyful and maybe even more creative. While part of the reason seems to be associated with the fact that people, especially children, are usually more physically active when they are in nature, and physical activity is highly correlated with good mental health, there is something more fundamental than that. Some scientists believe that we have an innate love for nature that is the result of our evolutionary history. In the 200,000 or so years in which our species has existed, we relied heavily on nature for survival and protection. Urban environments have only been developed very recently and quickly in our evolutionary history, and therefore, our brains and bodies are not yet adapted to them. In other words, even though we now depend heavily on things like electricity, money, motorized vehicles and the internet to survive, engage with the world and protect ourselves, we still have the brains, bodies and genes of ancestors who needed to be in constant contact with nature in order to gather fruits, hunt, run away from predators or socialize. Therefore, when our modern brains and bodies are placed back into a natural landscape, they still have the same innate response of safety, alertness and even joy or peace — as long as there is no danger. You can learn more about these fascinating nature-loving (biophilic) hypotheses by reading this scientific review.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that most of the research cited here comes from Europe and the United States. The research is also mostly concerned with green spaces such as city parks and forests when referring to “nature” or “natural landscapes.” So, what about dry countries such as Egypt where there are no true forests or woods or lush green mountains? What about deserts and coastal environments? Do they have the same impact on children’s mental health? Local data seem to be lacking or inaccessible. However, researchers argue that the definition of “nature” and what a local people considers to be a beautiful, relaxing or therapeutic landscape is very variable, and whatever is locally experienced as “nature” is likely to have the same positive effect on mental health as greenery has in other places.

This issue of geographically variable definitions of what constitutes beautiful natural landscapes presents itself in Egyptian society in different and interesting ways. Many urban Egyptians, even if some may be afraid of the sea itself, enjoy at least having a view of it and consider a day at the beach or on a terrace overlooking a beach to be relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve found though that if I ask an urban Egyptian to describe what a therapeutic scene of nature might be to them, they are likely to describe greenery, trees, grass and maybe a river or a stream, which are rather rare components of Egyptian landscape, except when they are man-made. You may find that many people consider the sea to be a separate category, and they may not immediately associate the sea or the beach with natural landscapes.

Paradoxically, and despite Egypt being mostly a dry country with more desert than any other type of landscape, I have observed that many, if not most urban Egyptians, fail to see any value or beauty in any type of desert and instead view it as wasteland that should be developed or “turned green.” It seems that only local communities whose lifestyles and identities are tied to the desert appreciate its value, perhaps along with individuals who have received adequate education about desert ecosystems and wildlife. It may be true that parts of Cairo and other areas close to the Nile River used to be greener, and certainly more attention should be paid to maintaining green public spaces already existing in Cairo, but what is even more necessary is for landscapers, engineers, land developers and other such decision makers, as well as people who simply want to enjoy the outdoors, to understand that Egypt’s natural climate is dry. We have to accept that fresh water is a scarce resource that should not be wasted trying to turn the desert into green golf courses and beach house lawns. At the same time, the misconception held by urban Egyptians that the desert is a valueless wasteland could be corrected for future generations through proper classroom and outdoor education.

We do have some local anecdotal evidence of exposure to nature having very positive, and sometimes transformative, impacts on children who were born and raised in Cairo. Environmental education organizations such as Dayma and the Environmental Protection and Education Association (EPEA, founded by Dr. Mohamed Ismail) report many such success stories. These organizations take children and teenagers (between 9-17 years old) on field trips outside Cairo to locations such as Ain Sokhna, Dahab, Nuweiba, Marsa Alam, Wadi al-Gemal and others. During these trips, kids are engaged in nature-based activities that teach them about animals, plants, ecology, ecosystems, conservation, scientific inquiry and local communities. Instructors from both organizations observe that many of the kids who join their trips manage to overcome fears they previously had of animals, insects, the sea or of the idea of camping and being away from home more generally. In the process of overcoming these fears, the children start to behave more confidently and cooperatively and appear to have improved mood and self-esteem. Those who were known to behave rudely or violently towards other children and teachers also exhibited significantly improved behavior on trips.

Apart from mental health improvements, these trips appear to have the added benefit of being effective at teaching children about the value of nature and natural resources and about their responsibility towards them. Several Dayma instructors, including Sarah El-Sayed (founder), Farah Kamel, Kenzie Azmi and Nada Elissa told me that kids learn to be less wasteful of water, for example, in their day-to-day lives and more appreciative of the role played by nature in providing them with many of the blessings they enjoy. There are many stories from both Dayma and EPEA which can be simply summarized as follows: kids who spend more time learning about the natural world outside the classroom don’t just have improved social behavior and mental health, they also seem to develop a heightened sense of responsibility and appreciation for natural resources, which is crucial for raising environmentally-conscious adults in today’s age of climate change and the senseless overexploitation of finite resources. From my own experience, I believe I personally would never have attempted to pursue a PhD in marine conservation if I had not been dragged, at age 17 (kicking and screaming at first), to Ras Mohamed National Park to go snorkeling and see coral reefs for the first time.

So, what can we do to make sure that kids who are stuck in big cities like Cairo are not missing out? Egypt is, in fact, rich with protected areas and national parks, some of which are inside or quite close to Cairo, such as Wadi Degla National Park (Maadi) and the Petrified Forest (New Cairo), which are good destinations for camping, picnics, grilling, mountain biking or hiking. If you are a parent, in addition to teaching your kids how to unplug by doing it yourself, you could take them to places such as Al-Azhar Park, sports clubs or any other place where they can enjoy unstructured outdoor play in a natural environment (even if the park is man-made). You could also arrange outdoor playgroups for your kids with their friends and neighbors to build their sense of social connection and, if possible, you could both benefit your kids and support organizations like Dayma and EPEA by sending your kids on trips with them during the school year.  

But while middle- and upper-class children may easily be able to gain access to exclusive parks, youth centers or sports clubs or to go on trips outside Cairo, children from low-income, working class families may not even be able to access the information that tells them where they could go, let alone the financial means to travel or purchase memberships. They may be living in congested parts of the city that are of substandard air quality, water quality and waste management, and they may be too far away from any free-access public parks (which are scarce in Cairo to begin with) or any relaxing outdoor spaces. This is not to mention that their parents would also not have adequate access to information on mental health or even to this article. Researchers describe this unequal access to a clean and healthy environment according to social class or income level as environmental inequality.

Unequal access to outdoor spaces is not merely an unintended consequence of careless city planning, it is also a direct consequence of the growing privatization of land without any regard for the access rights of local residents. This can be seen most clearly in cities along the Red Sea in Egypt, such as Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada. Almost the entire coastline of Hurghada is currently sectioned off into private hotel and resort beaches with only one or two very small public beaches left for local, working class residents, and even in those public beaches, access is not completely free of charge. In the north end of the city (in the stretch between Hurghada and Gouna) where coastal development is still slow, there remain small parts of the coastline that are not public beaches per se but rather “wild” beaches that are not maintained, cleaned or monitored, and are used as free beaches by locals. However, it is only a matter of time before even those unprotected beaches become privatized.

This problem of unequal access, whether to public outdoor spaces or simply to clean, healthy environments, not only contributes to public health issues, but is also part of a social justice concern. It has the potential of locking underprivileged classes in self-reinforcing cycles of poverty and poor physical and mental health. It must become recognized that every child in Egypt is entitled to a clean environment and to safe spaces where they can play outdoors, regardless of their race, physical ability or social class.

Maha T. Khalil