Nurtured by nature

6 June 2012 By LEONG SIOK HUI   Before he could even talk, Zuriel Cohen Gunalan was already toddling on jungle trails … thanks to his gung ho parents who are outdoor lovers.   “It is who we are and what we love,” says Yasmin Paranjothy, 36, of Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “It was important for us to get our little man loving the outdoors, too.”   As soon as their firstborn turned one, he was tagging along on camping and hiking trips to jungles in Pahang’s Janda Baik, Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill. He takes to the outdoors like a duck to water.   Most families are content with weekend camping trips or backpacking holidays, but adventurous parents Alison Sandra Murugesu and her late husband, Ghani Ishak, took it to the next level. They packed their then three-year-old son, Adrian, on a two-year, overland journey across 43 countries.   Their 4WD truck doubled up as a mobile home. At each destination, they camped in the bush, near a river or water source, and at times in designated campsites with shower facilities.   In Africa, they parked their “home” behind sand dunes in the desert or got permission from tribal villages to set up camp. Hot showers were a luxury and toilets were the bushes.   “Having a young child doesn’t mean the end of adventure holidays. We were determined not to be confined to paddle pool and play area holidays,” says Klang Valley-based Alison, 41. “It was our long-time dream and we had to do it whilst Ghani and I were still fit and able to cope.”   The family arrived back in Malaysia just in time to celebrate Adrian’s fifth birthday. Today, he is eight and still goes for regular outdoor hikes and road trips.   Folks like Yasmin and Alison are not alone. More and more parents are getting clued in on the perks of introducing their kids to the outdoors. In the last decade, studies have increasingly found the link between nature play and a child’s cognitive, physical and emotional development.   Spending time outdoors– especially unstructured time in natural settings – can reduce children’s stress, increase their curiosity and creativity, improve their physical coordination and reduce symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder, according to research papers published in the Children & Nature Network (   The US-based organisation helps families, communities and grassroots organisations to reconnect children with nature.   Richard Louv, the C&NN cofounder and author of bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods famously coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” Louv maintains that indoor kids are more prone to childhood problems like obesity, depression and attention disorders. He argues that they miss out on the spiritual, emotional and psychological benefits of exposure to the wonders of nature, including creativity and cooperative play.   For parents like Jessy Phuah, camping and hiking are far healthier options than outings to the malls or playing computers games.   “Spending time outdoors with my family strengthens our bond and makes us appreciate nature a lot more,” says Phuah, who has six children aged three to 17. Her family has been going on regular hikes since 2010 and started camping last year. They did 13 camping trips in 2011 alone.      Although there is no specific research linking outdoor experience and the quality of parent-child attachment, the natural world seems to invite and facilitate parent-child connection and sensitive interactions, according to a published paper (Together In Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family, Sara S. Antoine, January 2012, C&NN).   Unplugging from daily distractions – household chores, TV, mobile phones and computers – and taking a child into a park or natural area makes it easier for parents to be emotionally available to the child. It’s one of the most important factors in building attachment, Antoine wrote.   “It’s a great way to spend quality time with my kids and create memories together,” says Phuah, 44, of Kuala Lumpur. They usually go on camping trips with other families, using 4WD. They have also introduced caving and snorkelling to their kids.   “In Malaysia, we are so blessed with beautiful rivers and waterfalls.”   Trials and errors   Shannon Ng takes her kids camping simply because “the kids love it!” Though Ng and her husband weren’t seasoned outdoorsmen, they were not fazed.   “The girls love splashing in the stream, playing with sand, picking dry leaves …” says the mother of two children, aged five and eight. Her family goes camping and hiking at least once a month in Selangor’s forest reserves like Sg Congkak, Ulu Yam and Commonwealth Park. As Malaysian Nature Society members, they also tag along on MNS trips.   When Ng’s younger daughter, Hui, was two, they went on their first camping trip on a resort ground in Batu Gajah, Perak. It poured cats and dogs and they had to move their tent into a hall.   “Every time I tried to put Hui down to sleep in the tent, she wailed. Even after she fell asleep, when I tried to lie down, she would wake up and cry,” recalls Ng, 40. Finally she cradled Hui in her arms all night and didn’t catch a wink.   A few months later, on their second outing, she explained to Hui what camping entailed prior to the trip and asked if she would be able to sleep in a tent.   “She said ‘I am ready!’ and there were no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’ She slept through the night,” says Ng.   On another eventful outing in Janda Baik, the family rented a tent from the resort.   “It was raining all night and we had to zip up the tent. Hui couldn’t sleep because it was hot and stuffy,” recalls Ng. “Water started dripping through the tent and my pyjamas got wet. We had to use all the sleeping bags to line the tent floor.”   But instead of dwelling on their camping disaster, Ng looked on the bright side. “We enjoyed the cool, fresh air, listened to the calming sounds of the river, and finally fell into a deep slumber,” she adds. “After that trip, we bought a good quality tent!”   For these like-minded folks, the pros of going outdoors usually outweigh the cons.   “Zuriel, now 19 months old, has become so fascinated with insects and realised they are living things just like his pet dog and cats at home,” says Yasmin who is planning their next camping trip to Sarawak in August and a two-month camping trip in Australia and New Zealand in November.    “Adrian has become a very independent and confident child because of the exposure,” says Alison.   “Spending so much time living outdoors has made us more aware of our surroundings, the beauty of nature and the need to respect the environment.”   “I had a fantastic childhood filled with the best memories of trekking, fishing, and etc, as my dad was an outdoorsman, too,” Yasmin sums up. “I hope we can create the same memories fo r our children.”   Taken from FAMILY pg. 2 & 3, Star2, The Star dated 6 June 2012.