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Go Outside and Play! Four Reasons Why Exposure to Nature is Essential For Our Children’s Well-Being
1. Time spent outside has a direct impact on a child’s development.
There is growing evidence that direct contact with nature is essential for children’s physical and mental health.Studies also show that exposure to nature can boost a child’s resistance to stress and depression
Although a lot of exercise is done outdoors, for the purposes of this article, when I say outdoor time, I don’t mean organized sports. I mean solitary, random or unstructured time outdoors.
The health benefits are many. Being outdoors does not increase your chances of getting sick. Kids don’t get colds from cold weather, they get colds from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is our nation’s number one environmental health concern; 2 to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play has also been linked to childhood obesity. Outdoor play can build physical stamina and strength.
The physical and social activities that children enjoy in nature differ from organized sports. Time in nature is more open – there is no time limit. Children make the rules. As such, they learn key team skills as they must learn to work together and discover the value of teamwork. These are important lifelong community-building skills.
A New York-based study followed 133 people from infancy to adulthood. Research has found that adult competence stems from three main factors in early life: 1. Rich sensory experience inside and outside 2. Unrestricted freedom to explore 3. Parents act as advisors when children ask questions.
Most people in today’s world do not see nature as a cure for emotional difficulties. While we see a lot of ads for antidepressants or behavioral medications, we rarely see ads for natural remedies. Many parenting books offer advice on how to deal with challenging behaviors. However, few advice manuals recommend spending time in nature as one of their recommendations. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, a child’s disconnect from nature can exacerbate the need for such remedies. While there’s no cure for severe depression, time spent in nature can relieve the everyday stressors that can lead to depression.
If parents could see their children’s time in nature not just as leisure time, but as an investment in our children’s health, we would be doing them a huge favor.
2. Time spent outside helps prevent sensory overload and over-reliance on the material world.
The internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. However, overuse of it has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.
There is a tremendous amount of sensory input being forced on our children. As a result, many children develop a “know it all” mind-set. If it can’t be googled, that’s fine too. As a result, kids miss out on the endless possibilities that exist outside of the wired world. Indeed, the stillness of the outside world can engender a sense of quiet awe—a feeling not even the most advanced computer can provide.
In our society, it’s easy for kids to become attached to “stuff.” 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, walking, and watching the sunrise make us feel better. Avoid sending the message that everything that makes us happy needs to come from the store.
3. Outdoor activities can improve creativity, self-confidence, and concentration; may alleviate symptoms of attention and learning disabilities
Research shows that children engage in more creative play in green areas compared to manufactured play areas. The natural environment encourages fantasy and belief. Boys and girls also tend to play more equally and democratically outdoors. Having a sense of curiosity leads the child to ask more questions.
Furthermore, ideas and imagination are not limited to man-made things, but can be extended to everything outside of nature. Grass, trees, branches and rocks can be transformed into almost anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
In her famous book “Notebooks of the Mind,” author Vera John-Steiner looks at some of the world’s most creative musicians, painters, A background in scientists, writers and architects that examines how creative people think. John-Steiner found that the creativity and imagination of nearly everyone she studied was rooted in their early open-ended play experiences.
The natural environment is far more complex than any playing field. It provides discipline and risk and utilizes all senses, and outdoor challenge programs show a direct link to confidence levels long after the experience is over.
Have you ever noticed how a child who might have trouble concentrating or remembering in the classroom effortlessly uses those skills outdoors in open-ended play? The focal point appears more naturally on the outside. Skills developed outdoors can easily be extended back home or in the classroom. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to nature can also reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve learning abilities.
4. Outdoor time can help our children appreciate and understand the planet despite confusing and disturbing messages from the media.
Television, while informative, can distort people’s perceptions of the “dangers” of nature. As a result, children may interact less with friends and neighbors. Reducing interaction with neighbors only breeds isolation. Our instincts and “gut feelings,” as well as our cooperative skills, are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
The danger of strangers and the fear of wild animal attacks drive many parents to prefer playing indoors or visiting fast-food playgrounds. Fears of stranger danger and wildlife attacks are heavily exploited by the media, although there are real risks. Children are particularly vulnerable to media coverage. They see a report of an assault or kidnapping and think it’s happening everywhere. Kids don’t see the globe (and because of the way it’s represented in the media, neither do many adults). In his book “Last Kid in the Woods,” author Richard Louv describes an example in which a high school teacher expressed concern after taking students on a camping trip. Apparently, many students were unable to enjoy the experience because they were afraid that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When I go for a walk or hike outside with my kids, instead of telling them “careful,” I prefer to say “watch out.” Attention encourages them to pay attention with all their senses, and avoids evoking irrational fears of “what’s out there.”
Children may also resist unstructured excursions outside because they find it “boring.” Again, this may be related to media programming that tends to focus on natural disasters. While educational at times, it can also be extreme. So unless the kids see the bear tearing up the calf, they don’t feel like they’re getting enough – which is boring. Carefully balance media exposure with positive real-life experiences.
While it’s important to teach our children environmental awareness, if they don’t experience a direct positive interaction with the outdoors, they run the risk of associating anything to do with nature with fear and destruction rather than joy and wonder. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet”, global warming, and environmental pollution can lead young people to see Earth as a science experiment or a place to avoid because of all the bad things that happen to it. Finding the right balance between environmental awareness and positive hands-on experience is critical.
things you can do
Before you start packing your home 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 there is a canyon mystery at the end of your path, or a special tree in your own backyard , for young children, is as, if not more satisfying, the well-known wonders of the planet.
Parents don’t need to “teach” their children to inspire an appreciation for nature. Observing a simple march of ants can be astonishing. Jumping over stones in a stream or picking them up to count bugs after a rain is an education in itself.
Hiking is a great way to experience the natural world. However, one parent’s excursion can become a child’s forced march. Be careful presenting the outing rather than pushing it. Make it a shared adventure. “Come out with me” or “Let’s go hiking” might not sound like much fun, but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offers more possibilities .
Gardening is another great way to introduce children to what the earth can do. In general, kids are more likely to eat what they grow themselves that they wouldn’t eat otherwise.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing”. Alone time can actually be very beneficial as children gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their strengths and aspirations. Avoid telling children they shouldn’t daydream or occasionally stare out the window. Without occasional idleness, how can they truly appreciate the magnificence of nature?
For single parents, there are many nature organizations and online groups that encourage single parent families to get involved.
Work with your child to make a list of things you really enjoy doing. The answer might surprise you. Many kids will say it’s time to get out and play an organized sport that they really enjoy. Reevaluate your schedule to accommodate the things you really enjoy doing.
Get advice from schools, nature organizations and friends. Most importantly, get outside!
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