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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 IMPACT ON A CHILD’S DEVELOPMENT.
There is growing evidence to suggest that direct experiences with nature are essential to a child’s physical and emotional health. Studies have also shown that being in 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 outdoor time, I am not referring to organized sports. I mean solitary, random, or unstructured time outdoors.
The health benefits are numerous. Playing outside does not increase the chance of getting sick. Children don’t catch colds from cold weather, they catch colds from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is a major environmental concern in our country; two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play is also linked to childhood obesity. Playing outside promotes physical endurance and strength.
Physical and social activity of children in nature differs from organized sports. Time in nature is more open – there are no time restrictions. Children make the rules. As a result, they learn critical group skills as they must learn to work together and discover the value of teamwork. These are important lifelong skills for community building.
The New York-based study 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 experiences inside and outside 2. Freedom to explore with few constraints 3. Parents who are available and act as consultants when their child asked questions .
Most people in today’s world do not look to nature as a cure for emotional problems. We rarely, if ever, see an ad for a natural therapy, although we do see many ads for antidepressants or behavioral medications. Many parenting books provide advice on how to manage challenging behaviour. However, it is rare to find a manual that recommends staying in nature as one of its suggestions. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such medication can be intensified by disconnecting a child from nature. While not a cure for severe depression, spending time in nature can ease the daily pressures that can lead to depression.
If parents would perceive a child’s stay 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 favor.
2. TIME OUTSIDE CAN HELP PREVENT SENSUAL OVERLOAD AND OVER-RELYING ON THE MATERIAL WORLD.
The internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. However, its excessive use is associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness.
An overwhelming amount of sensory input is forced upon our children. Many children subsequently develop a “know it all” mindset. If it can’t be googled, that’s fine. As a result, kids are missing out on the endless possibilities that exist outside of the cable world. Indeed, the tranquility of the outside world can afford a sense of quiet wonder—something that even the most sophisticated computer cannot offer.
In our society, it’s easy for kids to get attached to a “thing.” 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 a long walk, 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. OUTDOOR TIME INCREASES CREATIVITY, CONFIDENCE AND FOCUS; POTENTIALLY IMPROVING SYMPTOMS OF ATTENTION DEFICIT AND LEARNING DISABILITIES
Studies suggest that children engage in more creative forms of play in green areas over artificial playing surfaces. The natural environment supports the imagination and convinces. Boys and girls also tend to play outdoors more evenly and democratically. There is a sense of wonder that leads children to ask more questions.
Also, ideas and imaginations are not limited to what is man-made, but can extend to anything that is naturally available. Grassy fields, trees, sticks and rocks can become virtually anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
In her acclaimed book Mind Notebooks, author Vera John-Steiner explored how creative people think by looking at the backgrounds of some of the world’s most creative musicians, painters, scientists, writers and builders, living and deceased. John-Steiner found that the ingenuity and imagination of almost all the people she studied were rooted in their early experiences with open-ended play.
The natural environment is much more complex than any playground. Offering rules and risks and engaging all the senses, outdoor challenge programs have shown a direct correlation with levels of confidence long after the experience is over.
Have you ever noticed how a child who may struggle to focus, concentrate, or remember in the classroom can effortlessly perform these skills in open-ended play outside? Focus comes more naturally outdoors. Skills developed outdoors can easily extend back into the home or classroom. Many studies suggest that exposure to nature can also reduce ADHD symptoms and can improve learning abilities.
4. TIME OUTSIDE CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN APPRECIATE AND UNDERSTAND THE PLANET DESPITE CONFUSING AND MISCELLANEOUS MESSAGES FROM THE MEDIA.
Television, while informative, can provide a distorted view of the “dangers” of Mother Nature. As a result, children may enjoy less interaction with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only leads to isolation. Our intuitions and “feelings,” as well as our cooperative abilities, are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
Stranger danger and the fear of wildlife attacks have led many parents to prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food playgrounds. While there is of course a real risk, the media has played heavily on the fear of stranger danger and wildlife attacks. Children are particularly sensitive to media messages. They see one report of an attack or kidnapping and assume it’s happening everywhere. Children don’t think globally (and because of how it can be presented in the media, neither do many adults). In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv describes the example of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. A number of students apparently had trouble enjoying the experience because they were terrified that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When I go outside or go for walks with my kids, rather than telling them “be careful”, I prefer to say “pay attention”. Paying attention encourages them to notice with all their senses and avoids creating an irrational fear of “what’s out there.”
Children may also resist unstructured trips outside because they feel it is “boring”. Again, this may be related to media programming that focuses on natural disasters. While this is sometimes very educational, it can also be extreme. So if kids don’t see a bear tearing up a calf, they feel like they’re not getting enough – it’s boring. 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 nature, there is a risk that anything related to nature will be associated 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 on it. It is essential to find the right balance between environmental awareness and positive practical experiences.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
Before you start packing up your family and outdoor gear and planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, or giving up hope because you have no intention of going to the Grand Canyon, remember that the secret of the ravine at the end of your road, or the special tree in your own backyard, is for little a child as, if not more, pleasing than the known wonders of the earth.
Parents don’t have to “teach” their children to inspire an appreciation of nature. Observing the simple march of ants can be awe-inspiring. Skipping rocks in a stream or picking up rocks to count worms after a rain is an education in itself.
Hiking is a great way to explore the natural world. However, one parent’s hike can become a child’s forced march. Be careful to present the output rather than print it. Make it a mutual adventure. “Come out with me” or “Let’s go hiking” may not sound that 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 often eat things they have grown themselves that they would not eat otherwise.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing”. Alone time can actually be quite rewarding as children get to know themselves, their strengths and their desires on a deeper level. Don’t tell kids they shouldn’t daydream or stare out the window once in a while. How else can they truly appreciate the beauty of nature without occasionally getting lazy?
For single parents, there are many grassroots organizations and online groups that support single parent family participation.
Make a list with your child of what you really like to do. The answers may surprise you. Many kids will say that it’s time outside over organized sports that they really love. Rethink your schedule to accommodate what you really love to do.
Get information from schools, nature organizations and friends. Go outside!
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