Earth Matters: Children need nature to thrive

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Patti Wood

By Patti Wood

Before the leaves fell and the temperature dropped this fall, my husband and our two grandsons spent hours in the woods, building a fort, making a path through invasive vines to a stream and exploring old foundations. They even discovered the fort my husband and his friends dug decades ago. It was real outdoor adventure and my youngest grandson says it was the “best fun ever!”

While we are fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy this outdoor experience, so many children today are stuck in a daily routine of moving from a computer screen to a TV screen and then back again. Some of this can be attributed to the current pandemic, but even before this unprecedented event forced us indoors, kids had been spending more and more time on their electronic devices. Even the youngest ones are adept at turning on cell phones, tablets and computers and finding their way to a video game or a movie. Some can even find something they want from Amazon and put it into the shopping cart! Besides the irresistible draw of a screen, today’s kids also gravitate to lots of other things to do indoors, many of which are electronic toys.

What is this mostly sedentary life of touching screens, pressing buttons and tapping on keys doing to our children? One obvious consequence is that our children are growing up without connections to or even interest in the natural world. This trend has raised concern among doctors, psychologists, educators, parents and even grandparents. It has been the focus of Capital Hill hearings, legislative action and international efforts to get kids outside to become familiar with nature and reap the many benefits of this simple but critically important human experience.

Richard Louv wrote the national best-selling book “Last Child in the Woods,” in which he talks about the growing body of evidence linking the obesity epidemic, behavioral and learning disabilities and depression in children to the lack of nature in their lives. He writes, “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity. This need is revealed in two ways: by an examination of what happens to the senses of the young when they lose connection with nature, and by witnessing the sensory magic that occurs when young people are exposed to even the smallest direct experience of a natural setting.”

The relationship between spending time outdoors and physical health seems clear, but it is also complex. Here is an example: outdoor activities for kids are usually in the form of organized sports. But the childhood obesity epidemic has increased at the same time organized children’s sports have increased. Why is this? It turns out that the physical exercise in unorganized outdoor play in a natural setting is more varied and less time-bound.

Parents and kids know the organized sports drill – practices and games – stop and go – sit on the bench. Scandinavian countries have studied the differences in playing on flat playgrounds and sports fields vs. climbing trees and rocks and walking on uneven ground. They found that children fared better in large motor coordination, basic balance and agility when regularly challenged by natural terrain.

The Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois has done research showing that spending time in natural environments can reduce children’s Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder symptoms. In an early survey, parents of children with ADHD were more likely to choose activities that take place in green outdoor settings as being best for their child’s symptoms. A more recent study tested children with ADHD in a controlled setting after they had spent time in one of three environments that differed from one another in the level of greenery: a park, a neighborhood, and a quiet downtown area. The findings confirmed that children with ADHD functioned better after spending time in the park, the greenest setting.

Dr. Louise Chawla, University of Colorado Boulder, is an environmental psychologist whose work focuses on the benefits of access to nature for children and their development of care for the natural world. In her review of the literature entitled “Benefits of Nature Contact for Children,” she determines that time spent in green spaces is positively associated with higher concentration, greater self control, increased memory and academic success.

And there is general agreement that if children don’t experience the natural world, how can they possibly value it or want to protect it? How can they become passionate about environmental stewardship?

Children need to build memories of their childhood that seamlessly interweave the natural environment into their everyday lives. Backyard birdfeeders can help children identify native and migrating birds, tending gardens and compost bins will help them understand soil life and regular outings to hike through and explore surrounding natural areas are all simple ways to introduce children to nature.

Planting a tree can also provide a wonderful opportunity for a child to bond with nature. Volunteer tree seedlings or small locally grown specimens are most likely to thrive and easiest to plant. A child can only feel pride and connection to nature in this small act of giving a gift to the earth.

Positive experiences in nature during childhood last a lifetime and one of the best ways to help children find their place in the world is by helping them be part of it. Great sources for parents include rootsofaction.com, naturalstart.org, childmind.org and childrenandnature.org

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