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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 EFFECT ON CHILD DEVELOPMENT.
There is a growing body of evidence showing that direct experiences with nature are important for a child’s physical and emotional health. Studies also show 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 outdoor time I am not referring to organized sports. I mean solitary, random or unstructured time in the open air.
The health benefits are many. Playing outside does not increase the chance of getting sick. Children don’t get cold from cold weather they get cold from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is our nation’s number one environmental health concern; from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play is also linked to childhood obesity. Playing outdoors promotes physical endurance and strength.
The physical and social activities that children enjoy in nature are different from organized sports. Nature time is more open ended – no time restrictions apply. Children make the rules. Because of this they learn critical group skills because they need to learn to work together and to discover the value of working together. These are important community-building skills for life.
A New York-based study followed 133 people from infancy to adulthood. The study found that the ability to mature comes from three major factors in the early years: 1. Rich sensory experience indoors and outdoors 2. Freedom to explore with few restrictions 3. Parents who are present and acted as a consultant when their son asked.
Most people in today’s world do not see nature as a cure for emotional problems. We rarely see an ad for nature therapy although we do see many ads for anti-depressants or behavioral medications. Many parenting books provide advice on how to manage challenging behavior. Rarely though, is the advice manual recommending time spent in the natural world as one of its suggestions. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such medications can be intensified by separating a child from nature. While not a cure for severe depression, time spent in nature can relieve the daily pressures that can lead to depression.
If parents could see a child’s time in nature not only as a time to have fun but also as an investment in the health of our children, we would do them a great favor.
2. TIME OUTDOORS HELPS LOSE SENSORY OVER-LOAD AND OVER-RELIANCE ON THE MATERIAL WORLD.
The internet is here to stay and will be a great tool. Its excessive use however, has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.
There is an overwhelming amount of sensory input that our children are exposed to. Many children develop a “know it all” wired type of thinking. If it’s not Googled, it doesn’t matter. Because of this, children are missing out on the endless possibilities that exist outside of the wired world. In fact, the peace of the outside world can create a sense of quiet awe – something that even the most sophisticated computer cannot offer.
In our society, children are easily 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, going for long walks and watching the sunrise make us feel good. Avoid sending the message that everything that makes us happy must come from a store.
3. TIME OUTDOORS BOOSTS PERFORMANCE, CONFIDENCE AND FOCUS; POTENTIAL TO RELIEVE THE SYMPTOMS OF ATTENTION AND LEARNING DISORDERS
Studies show that children engage in more creative forms of play in green spaces than in manufactured playgrounds. Natural environments inspire fantasy and make believe. Men and women also tend to play more equally and democratically outside. There is a sense of wonder that leads children to ask more questions.
Furthermore, ideas and imaginations are not limited to the man-made but can extend to everything outside that is naturally available. Grassy fields, trees, sticks and rocks can be almost anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
Author Vera John-Steiner in her famous book, “Notebooks of the Mind”, researches what creative people think by looking at the backgrounds of some of the most creative musicians, painters, scientists, writers and builders living and dead. John-Steiner found that the inventiveness and imagination of almost all the people he studied was rooted in their early experiences of open-ended play.
A natural environment is more complex than any playground. It offers rules and risks and uses all the senses, Outdoor challenge programs show a direct link to the level of confidence long after the experience.
Have you ever noticed how a child who struggles to concentrate, focus or remember in a classroom can develop these skills effortlessly during outdoor play? Focusing is more natural outdoors. Skills developed outdoors can easily be brought back to the home or classroom, Many studies suggest that exposure to nature can also reduce ADHD symptoms and improve learning abilities.
4. TIME OUTSIDE HELPS OUR CHILDREN TO ENJOY AND UNDERSTAND THE PLANET DESPITE CONFUSING AND DISTURBING MESSAGES FROM THE MEDIA.
TV, while informative, gives a distorted view of the “dangers” of mother-nature. As a result, children may be less inclined to interact with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only breeds isolation. Our intuitions and “gut-feelings” as well as our cooperative skills are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
Stranger danger and fear of wild life attacks drive many parents to prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food joints. Although there is a real risk, the fear of stranger danger and wild life attacks is played up in the media. Children are particularly vulnerable to media reports. They see a report of an assault or abduction and assume it’s happening somewhere. Children don’t think universally (and because of how the media presents it, neither do many adults). Author Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” describes an example of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently, many of the students had a hard time enjoying the experience because they were afraid that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When walking outside or hiking with my kids, instead of telling them to “be careful,” I prefer to say “pay attention.” Attention encourages them to be aware of all their senses and avoid irrational fear of “what’s out there.”
Children may also resist unstructured outdoor excursions because they feel they are “boring.” Also it can be related to the media program that focuses on natural disasters. While sometimes very educational, it can also be overwhelming. So, unless the children see a bear tearing apart a calf they feel inadequate – it’s dull. Be careful to balance media exposure with positive real-life experiences.
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 with nature with fear and destruction instead of joy and wonder. 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 to it. It is important to find the right balance between environmental awareness and positive hands-on experience.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
Before you start packing family and outdoor gear and planning a trip to The Grand Canyon or despair because you have no intention of going to The Grand Canyon, remember that the mysteries of a ravine at the end of your street, or a special tree in your own backyard, are just as if not more satisfying to a child than the well-known wonders of the earth.
Parents do not need to “teach” their children to encourage an appreciation of nature. Observing a simple march of ants is surprising. Skipping rocks in a stream or picking up rocks to count worms after a rain is just education.
Hiking is a wonderful vehicle for experiencing the natural world. However, a parent’s hike can be a child’s forced march. Be careful in presenting the outing rather than pushing it. Make it a mutual adventure. “Come outside with me” or, “Let’s go for a hike” may not be very interesting but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offer many 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 raised themselves not to eat.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing.” Alone time, can be very rewarding as children get to know themselves, their strengths and their desires on a deeper level. Avoid telling children not to dream or look out the window sometimes. How can they truly appreciate the beauty of nature without occasional laziness?
For single parents there are many environmental organizations and online groups that encourage single parent family involvement.
Make a list with your child of what you want to do. The answers may surprise you. Many children will say it’s time outside of the organized sports they love. Re-evaluate your schedule to accommodate what you want to do.
Get input from schools, environmental organizations, and friends. Above all, get out!
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