Nature has always been restorative for me. If I’m stressed, tired, frustrated, sad, or perplexed, a simple walk through the woods always helped me to process my thoughts, clear my mind, and reconnect with what is truly important to me. I’ve seen the difference being in nature has on my own children–how it soothes and restores them to their happy selves. There are so many benefits to encouraging our children to play and learn outside that I feel it is time to start encouraging schools to integrate outdoor lessons into their curriculum.
First, there are then many cognitive benefits of free play in nature. Children have better focus and do better in school. Free play encourages creativity, problem solving, critical thinking skills, and self discipline (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005). Another benefit is simply helping children connect to what they are learning about. This lack of connection, according to Dr. Leonard Sax, is one of the reasons we are seeing an epidemic of underachieving, unmotivated young men. As Jon Young says in the video preview of Mother Nature’s Child (see video below): “Connection is so much more powerful that the information just follows it.”
Additionally, another important benefit are all the mental health benefits of being in nature. These include stress reduction, reduced agression, and increased happiness (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005). Richard Louv writes about the calming power of nature as well. I use nature as a tool to help my son when he gets overwhelmed and starts escalating. I’ll send him to the back yard (assuming the weather is fine) where he climbs his tree. After a few minutes he climbs down a calmer, happier kid.
If time in nature has such so many mental, social, emotional, and health benefits, then why aren’t children spending more time in nature? There are many barriers to reconnecting children with nature. One big one is fear. Richard Louv writes about fear, as does Lenore Skenazy in her amusing blog Free Range Kids (“Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers, Ivy League rejection letters and/or the perils of a non-organic grape”). It is this fear that has limited children’s ability to explore the neighborhood and connect with the local environment. In his article “How children lost the right to roam in four generations,” David Derbyshire discusses how children generations ago were able to walk for miles on their own away from home. If we’re going to reconnect kids with nature, we need to help parents overcome their fear and create safe outdoor play spaces.
Another barrier to reconnecting children with nature is media use. Louv tells the story of the boy who prefers to play indoors because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” If kids are inside playing video games or watching TV, then they’re not outside playing. The more kids watch TV, the less able they are to entertain themselves and the less likely they are to want to play outside (Payne, 2009). That is why I’m a big fan of Scree Free Week (check out their website for tons of cool screen free ideas). I also love the children’s book The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV for explaining the concept to young children, and the book The Wretched Stone for older children. We’ve recently started to significantly restrict screen time in our house. At first there were a lot of complaints (we had to conduct what I call “boredom training”), but they soon found many other things to do.
So how do we overcome these barriers and get our children outside? While there are many variables and problems beyond our control, there are things we can do at home. We can turn off the TV and let our children figure out how to entertain themselves. We can suppress our fears and allow our children to head out on their own to explore the yard or nearby park. We can cut back on their scheduled activities and allow our children more free time to discover who they really are in the wilds of the backyard. We can plan a family backyard campout. We can explore the Children and Nature Network website for ideas we can try with our children. Planning a hiking outing for your kids? Great! If you have room in the car offer to take a few other kids along and expose the neighbor’s kids or your children’s friends to the joys of exploring the local forest. Enjoy gardening? Plant a veggie or butterfly garden in your front yard and get the neighborhood kids involved. Turn your neighborhood into a “Playborhood!”
What about our schools? We can offer our support to our schools and teachers by volunteering our time. If you’re skilled at gardening offer your help to plant a small raised bed on school grounds. If you’re not skilled at gardening perhaps you can offer your time to help photocopy and do other simple tasks for the teachers so that the teachers can use their time for planning and organizing outdoor time. If you’re skilled with fundraising you can help raise funds to develop outdoor learning spaces or volunteer to apply for garden grants on behalf of your school. Are you good at organizing? Gather up a group of interested parents, teachers, and students at start designing, planning, and creating an outdoor classroom or natural playscape. Perhaps you’re good with kids–offer to babysit children during an outdoor classroom committee meeting. There are many ways to help–if you’re not sure what you can do check out this handy quiz on the Story of Stuff, Story of Change website!
This seems like a lot, and it is if you try to do all of it. But do not try to do all of it. Pick one thing–one simple thing that you could easily do and do it. Image the difference we could make if we each picked one small, doable task and completed it. For example, this year I plan to transform my tiny yard into an kid-friendly outdoor playscape. I also plan to help my children’s school design, build, and implement an outdoor classroom and natural playscape. What can you do?
Burdette, H.L., and Whitaker, R.C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children–Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affliliation, and affect. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159 (1), 46-50.