1. TIME OUTDOORS HAS A DIRECT IMPACT ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHILD.
There is a growing body of evidence that direct experiences with nature are essential to a child’s physical and emotional health. Studies have also shown that exposure to 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 time outdoors, I don’t mean organized sports. I mean lonely, random or unstructured time outdoors.
The health benefits are numerous. Playing outside does not increase the chance 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; two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play has also been linked to childhood obesity. Outdoor play promotes physical endurance and strength.
The physical and social activity that children enjoy in nature differs from organized sports. Time in the wild is more open, no time restrictions apply. Children make up the rules. Consequently, they learn critical group skills as they must learn to work together and discover the value of teamwork. These are important skills for building lifelong communities.
A New York-based study followed 133 people from infancy to adulthood. The study found that competence in adulthood stemmed 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 advisors when their son asked questions.
Most people in the world today do not see nature as a remedy for emotional difficulties. Rarely do we see an advertisement for natural therapy, although we do see many advertisements for antidepressants or behavioral medications. Many parenting books offer advice on how to deal with challenging behaviors. However, it is the rare advice manual that recommends spending time in the natural world as one of its suggestions. While medication and behavioral therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such remedies can be intensified by a child’s disconnection from nature. While not a cure for major depression, time spent in nature can relieve everyday pressures that can lead to depression.
If parents could perceive a child’s time in nature not only as free time but also as an investment in our children’s health, we would be doing them a great favor.
2. TIME OUTDOORS CAN HELP PREVENT SENSORY OVERLOAD AND OVER-DEPENDENCE ON THE MATERIAL WORLD.
Internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. However, its excessive use has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.
There is an overwhelming amount of sensory input being forced on our children. Consequently, many children develop a kind of “know-it-all” mentality. If you can’t Google it, it doesn’t matter. Consequently, children miss out on the endless possibilities that exist outside of the wired world. In fact, the serenity of the outside world can bring a sense of quiet wonder, something that even the most sophisticated computer cannot.
It’s easy in our society for children to become attached to “things.” It is important to take the time to tell our children what makes us feel 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. TIME OUTDOORS BOOSTS CREATIVITY, CONFIDENCE AND FOCUS; POTENTIALLY RELIEVING SYMPTOMS OF ATTENTION AND LEARNING DISORDERS
Studies indicate that children engage in more creative forms of play in green areas than in manufactured play areas. Natural environments encourage fantasy and make believe. Boys and girls also tend to play more equally and democratically outdoors. There is a sense of wonder that leads children to ask more questions.
Furthermore, ideas and imagination are not limited by what is man-made, but can be expanded to whatever is naturally available on the outside. Grass fields, trees, sticks, and rocks can turn into just about anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.
Author Vera John-Steiner in her well-known book, “Notebooks of the Mind,” investigated 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 everyone she studied was rooted in her early open-play experiences.
A 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, concentrating, or remembering in a classroom can perform these skills effortlessly during open, outdoor play? The focus is more natural on the outside. Skills developed abroad can easily be extended to the home or classroom. Many studies suggest that exposure to nature can also reduce ADHD symptoms and improve learning skills.
4. TIME OUTDOORS CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN APPRECIATE AND UNDERSTAND THE PLANET DESPITE CONFUSED AND CONCERNING MESSAGES FROM THE MEDIA.
Television, while informative, can give a distorted view of the “dangers” of Mother Nature. As a result, children may less enjoy interacting with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only creates isolation. Our intuitions and “hunches,” as well as our cooperative abilities, are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.
Danger from strangers and 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 fear of danger from strangers and wildlife attacks has been played up a lot by the media. Children are especially vulnerable to media reports. They see a report of an attack or kidnapping and assume it’s happening everywhere. Children don’t think globally (and from how it can be portrayed in the media, many adults don’t either). Author Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” describes the case of a high school teacher who expressed concern about him after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently, several of the students had trouble enjoying the experience because they were terrified that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.
When I walk outside or go on a hike with my children, instead of saying “be careful”, I prefer to say “pay attention”. Paying attention encourages them to be aware with all their senses and avoids inducing an irrational fear of “what’s out there.”
Children may also resist unstructured excursions outside because they feel it’s “boring.” Again, this may be related to media programming that tends to focus on natural disasters. While it is sometimes very educational, it can also be extreme. Consequently, unless children see a bear ripping apart a calf, they feel like they’re not getting enough to eat, it’s boring. Take care to balance media exposure with a 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 rather than joy and wonder. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet,” global warming, and environmental abuse can make young people see the planet as nothing more than a science experiment or a place to be avoided because of all the bad things that happen on it. Finding the right balance between environmental awareness and positive hands-on experience is essential.
THINGS YOU CAN DO
Before you start packing up 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, be aware that the mysteries of a ravine at the end of your path , or a special tree in your own backyard, are just as, if not more, rewarding to a young child than the well-known wonders of the earth.
Parents do not need to “teach” their children to inspire an appreciation of nature. Observing a simple ant market can be amazingly arousing. Skipping stones in a stream or picking up stones to count worms after a rain is itself an education.
Hiking is a wonderful vehicle for experiencing the natural world. However, a parent’s walk can become a child’s forced march. Take care to present the output instead of pressing it. Make it a mutual adventure. “Come outside with me” or “Let’s go for a hike” may not sound that exciting, but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offer many 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 might not otherwise eat.
Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing.” Alone time can be quite rewarding as children 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 they truly appreciate the magnificence of nature without occasional idleness?
For single parents, there are many nature organizations and online groups that encourage the involvement of single parents.
Make a list with your child of what he really likes to do. The answers might surprise you. Many kids will say it’s time outside for organized sports that they really love. Re-evaluate your schedule to accommodate what you really like to do.
Get input from schools, nature organizations and friends. Above all, get out!