x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In touch with the nature of being a child

Nature, with all its mystery and excitement, offers the perfect playground for children.
Nature, with all its mystery and excitement, offers the perfect playground for children.

It's just past 7.00am and Astrid is awake. She is in her cot with her nose pressed against the bars. Now and again she turns and cuffs Horatio P Bear, her stuffed bedtime companion, over the head. Through the bleary eyed haze of early morning, she is reminiscent of a baby tiger. Perhaps it is because she is wearing a stripy sleeping suit. She pushes herself up with her arms, holds her head high and starts to mew.

The passage from nature to culture is not quick or easy. At times, the process has been sidestepped completely. So-called wolf children crop up throughout history. From Romulus and Remus to Mowgli in The Jungle Book, cases of children nurtured by beasts occur in many eras and various cultures. Monkeys in Sri Lanka and Uganda, bears in Greece and Denmark, gazelles in the Sahara: numerous kids have survived and grown up in the wilderness thanks apparently to help from animals. None of the stories are watertight.

Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1623), the source of one of theatre's finest stage directions ("Exit, pursued by a bear"), tells the story of Perdita, a baby Sicilian princess raised by a shepherd after being cast out because her father suspected her to be illegitimate. A precursor of Rousseau's Emile, Perdita has a vigorous, bucolic childhood far away from the sickliness of the court. The play puts the case for nature as an antidote to an unhealthy civilisation.

Despite her fleeting wild looks, Astrid is, I fear, in danger of becoming a civil but sallow soul. At the moment, Abu Dhabi's furnace temperatures and fierce sunlight means she spends at most about 20 minutes outside every day. When she does go out, it is into a world of concrete and machines. As we try to cross a road, she watches car after car stream by. Animals are no longer depended upon in the same way as a few centuries ago. Toyota is today's trusty steed. Most people live without animals around them. The exception of course is pets. According to the US Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook (2007) more than 72 million dogs and almost 82 million cats are kept as pets in America. Nature's role in our existence declines, but a tamed substitute is blossoming.

One place animals keep popping up is in Astrid's playthings. Her books are full of animal characters. Bears, ducks, sheep, rabbits: her toy chest is like a menagerie. It is no coincidence that realistic representations of animals emerged in the 19th century. When machines began to replace beasts in an era of major industrial change, toys started to resemble real animals more and more. Yet the natural world - the realm beyond computer-generated Disney characters on gargantuan flat-screen televisions - is an excellent playground for children. Outside, camels, dragonflies and lizards await. You just have to look for them. Scrambling about on rocks, poking around in sand, wallowing in mud - nature has a big role to play in growing up. Doubtless it is fun, but it is also edifying: in a world where humans are central, nature offers another point of view. It provides an escape from humanity. It can be mysterious, remarkable and beyond our control. These are valuable things for any child to learn.

We are born with around 100 billion neurons in our brains, roughly the same amount we will have until we die. Synapses - the trillions of connections between the neurons - are the things that develop over the first few years of our lives. Astrid has a lot of synapse-building work under way. In four months she has changed from a gurgling bundle of bones to a little person. Synapses, I presume, are responsible. Sometimes I imagine I can actually see the connections being formed.

I have read that synapses are like pathways through dense undergrowth: the more they are trammelled, the more pronounced they become. As we grow older, less-used paths become overgrown and, eventually, blocked. This analogy made me think that infant development would be gradual, like whittling a stick or waves lapping gently on a shore. In truth, progress lurches forward. For example, Astrid did not want to lie on her front until one day she flipped herself over and started playing about on her tummy. No warning, no preliminaries, she just woke up one morning and did it. Mysterious and wonderful, nature is at work.

* Robert Carroll