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Go Outside and Play! Four Reasons Why Exposure to Nature is Essential For Our Children’s Well-Being
1. OUTDOOR TIME HAS A DIRECT INFLUENCE ON CHILDREN’S DEVELOPMENT.
There is increasing evidence that direct experiences with nature are essential for a child’s physical and emotional health. Research has also shown that exposure to nature can increase a child’s resistance to stress and depression
Although many sports are played outdoors, for the purpose of this article when I say outdoors I am not referring to organized sports. I mean solitary, random, or unstructured time outdoors.
The health benefits are numerous. Playing outdoors does not increase your chances of getting sick. Children don’t catch colds from cold weather, they catch colds from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is our nation’s greatest environmental health concern; from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play is also linked to childhood obesity. Outdoor play promotes physical endurance and strength.
The physical and social activity that children enjoy in nature is different from organized sports. Time in nature is more open – there are no time limits. Children make the rules. Consequently, they learn critical group skills as they must learn to work together and discover the value of teamwork. These are important lifelong community building skills.
A study in New York followed 133 people from childhood 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 were available and acted as consultants when their child set questions.
Most people in today’s world do not look to nature as a cure for emotional difficulties. We rarely, if ever, see an ad for nature therapy, although we do see many ads for antidepressants or behavioral medications. Many parenting books give advice on how to deal with challenging behaviour. However, it is a rare manual that recommends time spent in nature as one of the suggestions. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such medication may be heightened by a child’s exclusion from nature. Although not a cure for serious depression, spending time in nature can alleviate the daily pressures that can lead to depression.
If parents could perceive their child’s time in nature not only as free time but also as an investment in the health of our children, we would be doing them a great service.
2. TIME OUTSIDE CAN HELP PREVENT FRONTAL OVERLOAD AND OVER-RELIANCE ON THE MATERIAL WORLD.
The internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. However, excessive use is associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness.
There is an enormous amount of sensory input being forced upon our children. Consequently, many children develop a “know it all” mindset. If it can’t be googled, it doesn’t matter. Consequently, children miss out on the endless possibilities that exist outside the wired world. Indeed, the serenity of the outside world can afford a sense of quiet awe—something that even the most sophisticated computer cannot offer.
In our society, children easily get attached to “things”. It is important to take the time to tell our children what makes us happy outside of the material world. Tell them why experiences like gardening, taking long walks, and watching the sunrise make us feel better. Avoid sending the message that all the things that make us happy must come from a store.
3. TIME OUT STRENGTHENS CREATIVITY, CONFIDENCE AND FOCUS; POTENTIAL REDUCTION OF SYMPTOMS OF ATTENTION AND LEARNING DISORDERS
Research shows that children engage in more creative forms of play on green spaces compared to manufactured playrooms. The natural environment encourages fantasy and faith. Boys and girls also tend to play more equally and democratically outdoors. There is a sense of wonder that prompts children to ask more questions.
Also, ideas and imaginations are not limited by what is man-made, but can be extended to anything beyond what is naturally available. Grass fields, trees, sticks and stones can become almost anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
Author Vera John-Steiner in her famous book “Notes of the Mind” explored 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 all the people she studied were rooted in their early experiences of open-ended play.
The natural environment is much more complex than any playing field. It offers rules and risks and uses all the senses. Outdoor challenge programs have shown a direct link to confidence levels long after the experience has ended.
Have you ever noticed how a child who may have difficulty concentrating, focusing, or remembering in the classroom can effortlessly perform these skills during open play outside? Focus comes more naturally from the outside. Skills developed outside can easily be extended to the home or classroom. Many studies suggest that exposure to nature can also reduce ADHD symptoms and improve learning abilities.
4. TIME OUTDOORS CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN TO APPRECIATE AND UNDERSTAND THE PLANET DESPITE CONFUSING AND DISTURBING MESSAGES FROM THE MEDIA.
TV, while informative, can give a distorted view of the “dangers” of Mother Nature. As a result, children may enjoy interacting with friends and neighbors less. Less interaction with neighbors only breeds isolation. Our intuition and “feel” as well as our cooperative skills are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
The more unusual danger and fear of wild attacks on life has made many parents prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food playgrounds. Although the real risk, of course, exists, the fear of unknown danger and wild attacks on life has been greatly played up by the media. Children are particularly sensitive to media reports. They see one report of an assault or kidnapping and assume it’s happening everywhere. Children don’t think globally (and because of the way it can be presented in the media, neither do many adults). Author Richard Louv in his book “The Last Child in the Woods” describes the example of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently, a number of students had trouble enjoying the experience because they were afraid that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When I’m outside walking or hiking with my kids, instead of telling them to “be careful,” I prefer to say “pay attention.” Pay attention encourages them to be aware with all their senses and avoids inducing irrational fear of “what’s out there”.
Children may also resist unstructured outdoor excursions because they find it “boring”. This again can be linked to the media agenda focusing on natural disasters. Although sometimes very instructive, it can also be extreme. Accordingly, if children do not see a bear tearing apart a calf, they feel that they are not enough – it is boring. Be careful to balance media exposure with positive real-life experience.
While it is important to teach our children environmental awareness, if they do not experience direct positive interaction with the outdoors, there is a risk of associating anything to do with nature with fear and destruction instead of joy and wonder. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet”, global warming and environmental abuse can lead young people to view the planet as a science experiment or a place to avoid because of all the bad things that happen on it. It is necessary to find the right balance between environmental awareness and positive experience.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
Before you start packing up your family and outdoor gear and planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, or give up hope because you have no intention of going to the Grand Canyon, remember that the mysteries of a ravine at the end of your road, or a special tree in your backyard, are just as are, if not more, pleasing to a small child than the well-known wonders of the earth.
Parents do not need to “teach” their children to inspire respect for nature. Observing the simple march of ants can be astonishing. Skipping rocks in a stream or picking up 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 hike can become a child’s forced march. Be careful to introduce the date rather than push it. Make it a shared adventure. “Come outside with me” or “Let’s go hiking” may not sound so interesting, but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offers much more possibilities.
Gardening is another great way to introduce children to what the earth can do. Children are often more likely to eat things they have grown themselves that they wouldn’t normally eat.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing”. Alone time can actually be quite beneficial 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 I truly appreciate the majesty of nature without occasional idleness?
For single parents, there are many grassroots organizations and online groups that encourage single parent participation.
Make a list with your child of what you really like to do. The answers might surprise you. Many kids will say it’s time outside for the organized sports they really love. Reevaluate your schedule to accommodate what you really love to do.
Get information from schools, nature organizations and friends. Above all, get outside!
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