Most people agree children don't spend enough time outdoors. In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv expresses concern about this issue. He uses the term, Nature Deficit Disorder in reference to children who are disconnected from the natural environment. So, what are some of the benefits of time spent outdoors in Nature?
Image by Marie Vonow
1. Improved immune system Recent studies show children who regularly spend time playing outside have better physical health and suffer less illness. Research has also found those who often play freely in an unstructured natural setting are even healthier than those who use playgrounds and other outdoor environments set up and monitored by adults.
Time at a playground is good for a child's health Image by Marie Vonow
Time in an unstructured natural environment is even better for a child's health Image by Marie Vonow
2. Improved fitness It is not surprising that children who spend more time playing outdoors are fitter and less likely to be overweight than those who spend most of their day indoors. Exposure to sunlight raises vitamin D levels which strengthens bones, helps improve heart health and gives some protection from diabetes.
3. Better mental health Spending time in Nature causes a drop in stress levels and improves a child's mental health. Being in a natural environment allows children to observe and learn about the natural world. Watching birds and animals is relaxing and helps them feel connected to Nature.
Children are less likely to feel anxious and depressed if they spend more time outdoors. Exposure to sunlight can help ward off Depression.
When children have the opportunity to climb trees and explore they develop greater independence and increased self confidence.
4. Improved sleep When children play outdoors they are likely to get more exercise, breathe more deeply and be less stressed than if they spent all their time indoors. These factors assist in getting a good night's sleep.
5. Improved social skills Research has found children who regularly play outdoors have better social skills. Playing in a natural environment encourages children to interact more and be more cooperative. They are more likely to feel positive about each other and avoid confrontation with other children.
6. Increased cognitive skills Regularly spending time outdoors improves a child's ability to concentrate leading to improved academic results. Studies have also shown an improvement in language skills and memory.
Research shows children with Attention Deficit Disorder benefit from contact with all aspects of Nature and are likely to feel more relaxed in wide open spaces. They are able to run, shout and use up energy without being admonished for doing so and especially benefit from playing in water at the beach or a creek
Children with ADD find playing in water particularly soothing. Image by Pixabay
7. Greater creativity Spending time in Nature boosts creativity in children and encourages use of the imagination. Some children like to use natural objects such as shells, seeds, leaves, seed pods and sticks to make decorations, collages or other works of art. Other children like to pretend natural objects are people or animals and invent games using these items. Activities such as building a cubby house stimulate creativity as well as encouraging cooperation between children.
The dilemma in this day and age Nature benefits children in many ways so it is important youngsters get plenty of time outdoors. Today, children are spending only half as much time outdoors as they did twenty years ago and much less time than fifty years ago. More time is spent on structured after school activities and much more time in front of some sort of screen.
Modern backyards are smaller or non existent so many children need to go to a park or playground for outdoor activities. Much media coverage is given to child abductions making parents fear for the safety of their children. There may be busy roads to negotiate on the way to the park. Awareness of the danger of exposure to the sun's UV rays is increasing. There is the fear a child may be injured falling from a tree or playground equipment. Parents feel it is their duty to protect their children from all these risks.
However, parents often work long hours, and there are many single parents with multiple responsibilities so supervision can be difficult.
On the other hand, children develop independence and confidence through exploring natural environments without supervision. These days, is it ever safe to let them do this?
There doesn't seem to be an easy solution of how to ensure children have enough time in a natural environment and sufficient freedom to get the maximum benefit, but with their safety needs taken care of.