Get out there and play! Four reasons why exposure to nature is essential for the well-being of our children
1. TIME OUTDOORS HAS A DIRECT IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHILD.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that direct experiences with nature are essential to a child’s physical and emotional health. Studies have also shown that exposure to nature can increase a child’s resistance to stress and depression.
Although many sports are played outdoors, for the purposes of this article, when I say time outdoors, I do not mean organized sports. I mean lonely, random or unstructured time outdoors.
The health benefits are numerous. Playing outside does not increase the chance of getting sick. Children do not get colds from cold weather, but from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is our nation’s number one environmental health problem; two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play has also been linked to childhood obesity. Outdoor play promotes physical endurance and strength.
The physical and social activity that children enjoy in nature differs from organized sports. Time in nature is more open, no time restrictions apply. Children make up the rules. Consequently, they learn critical group skills as they must learn to work together and discover the value of teamwork. These are important skills for building a community for life.
A study conducted in New York followed 133 people from infancy to adulthood. The study found that competence in adulthood stems from three main factors in the early years: 1. Rich sensory experience both inside and outside 2. Freedom to explore with few restrictions 3. Parents who are available and act as consultants when their children ask questions.
Most people in today’s world do not see nature as a remedy for emotional difficulties. Rarely, if ever, do we see an advertisement for nature therapy, although we do see many advertisements for antidepressants or behavioral medications. Many parenting books provide tips on how to handle challenging behaviors. However, it is rare that the advice manual recommends spending time in the natural world as one of its suggestions. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such remedies can be intensified by the child’s disconnection from nature. While it is not a cure for severe depression, time spent in nature can ease the daily pressures that can lead to depression.
If parents could perceive a child’s time in nature not only as leisure time but also as an investment in the health of our children, we would be doing them a great favor.
2. TIME OUT CAN HELP PREVENT SENSORY OVERLOAD AND OVERLOAD IN THE MATERIAL WORLD.
The Internet is here to stay and it can be a great tool. However, its overuse has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.
Our children receive an overwhelming amount of sensory information. Consequently, many children develop a “know it all” mentality. If you can’t google it, it doesn’t matter. Consequently, children miss out on the infinite possibilities that exist outside of the wired world. In fact, the serenity of the outside world can afford a sense of quiet wonder, something that not even the most sophisticated computer can offer.
It is easy in our society for children to get attached to “things.” It is important to take the time to tell our children what makes us feel happy outside of the material world. Tell them why experiences like gardening, taking a long walk, and watching a sunrise make us feel better. Avoid sending the message that all the things that make us happy must come from a store.
3. TIME OUTDOORS INCREASES CREATIVITY, CONFIDENCE AND FOCUS; POTENTIALLY RELIEVED SYMPTOMS OF ATTENTION AND LEARNING DISORDERS
Studies indicate that children participate in more creative forms of play in green areas than in manufactured play areas. Natural environments encourage fantasy and fantasy. Boys and girls also tend to play more equitably and democratically outdoors. There is a sense of wonder that prompts children to ask more questions.
In addition, ideas and imagination are not limited by man-made things, but can be expanded to everything that is naturally available outside. Grass fields, trees, sticks, and rocks can be turned into just about anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
Author Vera John-Steiner in her well-known book, “Notebooks of the Mind,” investigated how creative people think by looking at the backgrounds of some of the world’s most creative musicians, painters, scientists, writers, and builders, both living and deceased. . John-Steiner found that the inventiveness and imagination of almost everyone he studied was rooted in his early open play experiences.
A natural environment is much more complex than any playing field. Offer rules and risks and use all the senses. Outdoor challenge programs have shown a direct link to confidence levels long after the experience is over.
Have you ever noticed how a child who may have difficulty concentrating, concentrating, or remembering in a classroom can perform these skills effortlessly during open play outside? The focus comes more naturally on the outside. Skills developed outdoors can easily be extended to the home or classroom. Many studies suggest that exposure to nature can also reduce ADHD symptoms and improve learning skills.
4. TIME OUTDOORS CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN APPRECIATE AND UNDERSTAND THE PLANET DESPITE CONFUSED MESSAGES AND MEDIA PROBLEMS.
Television, although informative, can give a distorted view of the “dangers” of Mother Nature. As a result, children can enjoy less interaction with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only creates isolation. Our intuitions and “gut feelings,” as well as our cooperation skills, are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
Strange danger and fear of wild life attacks have led many parents to prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food playgrounds. Although, of course, there is a real risk, the media has taken great advantage of the fear of danger from strangers and attacks from wildlife. Children are especially vulnerable to media reports. They see a report of an attack or kidnapping and assume it is happening everywhere. Children do not think globally (and because of how it can be presented in the media, neither do many adults). Author Richard Louv in his book “The Last Boy in the Woods” describes an example of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently, several of the students had trouble enjoying the experience because they were terrified that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When walking outside or hiking with my children, instead of saying “be careful”, I prefer to say “pay attention.” Paying attention encourages them to be aware with all their senses and avoids inducing an irrational fear of “what’s out there.”
Children may also resist unstructured excursions outdoors because they feel it is “boring.” Again, this may be related to media programming that tends to focus on natural disasters. While it’s very educational at times, it can also be extreme. Consequently, unless children see a bear tearing apart a calf, they feel they are not getting enough, it is boring. Take care to balance media exposure with positive real-life experience.
While it is important to teach our children about environmental awareness, if they do not experience a direct positive interaction with the outdoors, there is a risk of associating anything that has to do with nature with fear and destruction rather than joy and the amusement. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet”, global warming and environmental abuse can cause young people to see the planet as nothing more than a science experiment or a place to avoid because of all the bad things that happen on it. Finding the right balance between environmental awareness and positive practical experience is essential.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
Before you start packing the family and gear for outdoor activities and planning a trip to the Grand Canyon or giving up hope because you don’t intend to go to the Grand Canyon, keep in mind that the mysteries of a ravine at the end of your path, or a special tree in your own backyard, are just as, if not more, rewarding for a young child than the well-known wonders of the earth.
Parents do not need to “teach” their children to inspire an appreciation for nature. Observing a simple ant market can cause astonishment. Jumping rocks in a stream or collecting rocks to count worms after a rain is an education in itself.
Hiking is a wonderful vehicle for experiencing the natural world. However, a parent’s walk can become a child’s forced walk. Be careful to present the output instead of pressing it. Make it a mutual adventure. “Come outside with me” or “Let’s go for a hike” may not sound all that interesting, but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offers many more possibilities.
Gardening is another great way to introduce children to what the earth can do. Children are often more likely to eat things that they have grown up themselves that they would not otherwise eat.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing.” Time alone can be quite rewarding, as children can get to know themselves, their strengths, and their desires on a deeper level. Avoid telling children not to daydream or look out the window from time to time. How else can you truly appreciate the magnificence of nature without the occasional idleness?
For single-parent families there are many nature organizations and online groups that encourage single-parent involvement.
Make a list with your child of what he really likes to do. The answers might surprise you. Many kids will say it’s time to get outside about organized sports that they really love. Re-evaluate your schedule to fit what you really like to do.
Get information from schools, nature organizations and friends. Above all, get out!