Adapted from an article by Mari Ferrell
Do our children today have entire days to explore nature and enjoy the freedoms of the outdoors? Is unstructured outdoor play becoming a relic of the past?
Have you ever noticed the difference in your children's behavior when they are outdoors rather than cooped up inside? My childhood memories are filled with games of hide-and-seek, flashlight tag, making firefly lamps, building clubhouses, exploring the "woods" (vacant lot) near our house, and making things from the "clay" we found in the backyard. My mother and her brother tell stories of leaving their house every morning in the summer and not returning home until dusk. Their days included craw fishing in a nearby ditch, wading in Dry Creek, and building hideouts in the tall prairie grasses.
Do our children today have entire days to explore nature and enjoy the freedoms of the outdoors? Is unstructured outdoor play becoming a relic of the past? Evidence is mounting that points to the fact that children are spending more and more time indoors, disconnected from nature due to the pull of the TV, internet, or video games.
Outdoor play has a calming effect
In my own children I notice a marked difference in their personalities when they are able to enjoy the pleasures of outdoor play. I have always believed that children should spend as much time outside as possible, hearkening back to my teaching days when I was often the only teacher who took her students to the playground on cold and misty days. I never had a complaint about the kids' behavior inside as long as [I was sure] they had plenty of time outside. When things seemed to be getting crazy it was always a sign that they needed to get OUT! I have noticed that it works exactly the same with my own three kids.
Studies have indicated that exposure to green space and nature has an especially calming affect on children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Even adults benefit from time in nature, which has been shown to help with relaxation, stress reduction, and mental restoration.
Outdoor play is fun
This past summer at my daughter's birthday sleepover I had 12 girls ranging from six to eleven years old spending the night. My husband just happened to be out of town. I was a little concerned about doing this all by myself, so one of my good friends stayed for a couple of hours to help me out. Then she got to leave her kids with me and go out for a nice, quiet dinner with her husband. I was on my own. It was (understandably) wild and crazy inside my house. Cake crumbs and ice cream drippings covered the floor. I knew the best thing for everyone involved would be for all 12 kids to go in the backyard so I could have a moment to clean up the sticky mess. (Editor's note: Of course, keeping a close eye on the children from a window, or having an adult supervising the kids outside would be safest.)
For a full 15 minutes one or another of them kept knocking on the door. "When can we come in?" "I'm tired," "I'm bored out here," etc. They didn't seem too sure about the idea of being outside in the heat. Finally the kitchen was cleaned up and I was ready for the re-entry to occur. But wait—what was going on out there? I stealthily opened a shade and peeked outside. They had a frog and some paper birthday plates and bowls, sticks and leaves, and were building a frog mansion. The mansion became more and more elaborate over the next several hours and the frogs multiplied. There needed to be lots of rooms, you see. And a swimming pool complete with a diving board. …
Around 10 p.m. I forced them to come in. The frog mansion project ended up being the most talked-about event of the party.
Exposure to nature is crucial to human developmentThere is a growing amount of research that shows the importance of time spent in nature to human growth and development. Extensive evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. When children do not have the experience of being outside, they are missing out on an important part of childhood. In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv explains, "Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses."
We should not think of outdoor play as simply leisure time, but as something that is as necessary to our children's development as a balanced diet or a good night's sleep.
Time in nature helps:
Exercise when young builds the body for life
Studies are showing more and more that exercising seems to have a tremendous effect on human growth and development‚ most importantly when you are a little child, but also all the way up into your early 30s, and, of course, exercise is beneficial at any age. Some of the effects of exercise, such as bone growth, affect you for life, and can only be gotten when young.
It's believed that children who get insufficient physical activity and exercise may not grow to their full physical potential. It's a fact that exercise promotes growth on top of the growth which is derived from sleep and nutrition. Exercise is directly linked to the size and strength of a person's bones. Children who get good exercise grow more and have stronger bones than those who have less or no exercise.
Bones, like muscles, grow stronger with exercise. Bone growth stops around puberty or at 18–20 years; density and strength still increase until around 30–35 years. Exercise is the greatest stimulator of bone growth. Additionally, it's the bone strength gained during the first 35 or so years of life that either prevents or contributes to osteoporosis, and to overall strong or weak bones in later life.
What can you do?
Make an effort to increase time outdoors. Find ways to expose your children to nature and green spaces. [In the summer] this can be difficult to do in extreme heat, but sometimes just a hose and a few water balloons, a small kids pool or tub, buckets of water, and bubbles will suffice. A rock garden, vegetable garden, or animal habitat could be a wonderful addition to your backyard. Last summer we went for nature hikes and biked on the greenbelt in the cooler parts of the day, stopping to see interesting things along the way.
A growing body of literature shows that the natural environment has profound effects on the well-being of adults, including better psychological well-being, superior cognitive functioning, fewer physical ailments and speedier recovery from illness. It is widely accepted that the environment is likely to have a more profound effect on children due to their greater plasticity or vulnerability (Wells 2003).
Research is providing convincing evidence of the significant benefits of experiences in nature to children. Findings include: