Is time spent in nature optional leisure time – or is it a health-related necessity? Most people remember fondly childhood experiences, simple or more extravagant, when they were exploring and enjoying the great outdoors – jumping in mud puddles, skipping rocks in a creek, listening to the sound of crickets on a summer night, seeing a beautiful meadow, feeling sand on their feet and running it through their hands, or smelling pine trees on a hike in the mountains.
Yet research is starting to show that spending time in nature is not only a source of relaxation and a choice for leisure time, but is also beneficial to our children’s growth and health in many ways.
The Benefits of Being out in Nature
- Children are more creative when exposed to nature; they can use all their senses rather than just sight and sound; they can use their imaginations. Children in nature-based playgrounds engaged in more creative play than children in traditional asphalt/structure-based playgrounds. They were more alert, better at using their bodies and more likely to create their own games. This may be because there are more objects without specific uses in nature so children can make up any use they choose.
- Children who spend more time in nature have more friendships that are based upon inventiveness and resourcefulness rather than physical prowess.
- Both children and adults, but especially children, with ADHD can focus better after spending time exposed to nature. The effect has been shown to carry over to school.
- In schools that have outdoor classrooms, children tend to do better across the board regardless of subject.
It is further postulated that exposure to nature is calming, aids concentration, and decreases aggression, stress, and depression.
Spending time in nature as defined in this article is unstructured time in an outdoor setting – it could be your garden, a local park or a local vacant lot. Unstructured play allows children to figure out things for themselves, think creatively, and develop a cooperative spirit on their own.
This is not to say that time spent outdoors playing organized sports is not valuable – it is!!! Each activity teaches a different set of skills and kids benefit from both.
Ways to Increase Time in Nature
Assuming exposure to nature is a health-related necessity, how do we structure more unstructured time with nature into the schedules of our children – and ourselves???
- Model desired behavior – what would you like to see your children develop in their relationship with nature – curiosity, enthusiasm, stewardship, creativity, enjoying the simple things in life? Whatever it is, they are much more likely to develop that trait if they see you modeling it. Do they see you carefully examining the parts of a bug or plant – maybe looking up the life cycle afterwards? Do they hear you exclaiming over the beauty of a fall day, smelling a flower, tasting vegetables fresh from the garden, touching a worm, listening to the wind? Do they see you disposing of your trash properly or even see you picking up someone else’s litter? Are the building blocks of imagination available – it could be as simple as sand, water, dirt, plants, trees?
- Make it fun – pick something that will be enjoyable for both you and your children, whether it is having a picnic in your backyard, following animal tracks in the snow, or jumping into a pile of leaves in the fall. Make it a family event or include friends. Whatever will make it fun is worth trying. The resources below have some great ideas.
- Start small – if you have a garden full of weeds because it was so much fun planting seeds but was too big to maintain, or you come home from a long hike with blisters, chances are neither you nor your children will want to repeat the experience. Start small, perhaps with a planter of tomatoes outside your back door or stroll around the block after dinner. Leave them wanting more.
- Put technology on hold (TV, computer, video games, cell phones) – the greatest competition to getting out in nature – or just about anything else – seems to be screen time. By limiting electronics, we allow our children to explore other things including nature. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends NO screen time for children under 2 and no more than one to two hours per day educational, non-violent screen time for older children. Most of our children (us too) can give up some screen time and still have plenty of screen time left over.
- Schedule time for nature – it is easy to lose sight of our goals if we don’t deliberately put time into our busy days for them. With today’s hectic schedules, we may find that the only way to ensure that our children have free time for nature is to build it into their/our schedules. Taking nature out of the leisure, optional category in our lives and putting it into the healthy, necessary category can help us keep our priorities straight. You can also insert into everyday activities use of the natural world. For example, you can start their days by opening the blinds and maybe even cracking open the windows to see and hear the morning.
- Solicit input – children are much more likely to want to be out in nature if they have input into what that will entail. One option is to call a family meeting and brainstorm ideas for getting more nature time. In brainstorming, no idea is too crazy or too impractical. Later the unworkable ideas can be modified or eliminated but initially the idea is just to let the imagination run wild. After time spent in nature, discuss what everyone liked or didn’t like and adapt future plans accordingly.
Adding nature to our children’s lives can increase their creativity and alertness and can help them focus better. By structuring outdoor activities with your children that you as well as they enjoy, you will be passing on the value of knowing and respecting Mother Earth. At the same time, you will be creating a way for your family to spend time together that will increase your connection to one another. It may seem overwhelming to add one more thing to our busy schedules, but if we go slowly and identify activities that are fun, we may find our children loving it and possibly even taking the lead.by Karen Eble, Certified Parenting Educator
Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, 2008.
Molland, Judy, Get Out! 150 Easy Ways for Kids and Grown-Ups to Get into Nature and Build a Greener Future, Free Spirit Publishing, 2009.
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