Children Need Nature: Get Creative to Get Them Outdoors

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)

Do you remember interacting with nature as a child? For baby boomers (~1940-1960) and Gen X (~1960-1980) the overwhelmingly answer is a resounding, Yes. They spent their days playing in backyards, parks, woods, and gardens. Outside play was often unstructured and unorganized. As a child hovering between Gen Y (generation of the millennial ~1980-2000’s) and Gen Z (~2000-present) growing up in New York City, I spent my days inside at daycares, afterschool programs, and, often, glued to a screen. Turns out that I would have benefited from more time spent outside.

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Photo © Seth Werkheiser

My experience, in the middle of New York City, is not dissimilar from the experiences of many present-day children across America. In 2005, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the separation of humans and nature, particularly in children.open_in_new Recent studies have found youth 5-18 years old spend 5 hours per week in organized activities and over 44 hours per week engaged in screen time–with 15 of those hours in front of the TV.

A group of local kids visit the world's largest known Western larch tree just outside of The Nature Conservancy's Great Western Checkerboards Project, Montana. Seeley Lake, Montana. Photo credit: © 2014 Steven Gnam for the Nature Conservancy

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Steven Gnam)

A varied play diet encompasses structured, unstructured, supervised, and unsupervised playtime. Outdoor play is a vital component of that, helping children to build friendships, solve problems and explore the world around them.

Dr. Linda Papadopoulos

Increased screen time, however, is not the only influence competing for time with nature. Parents, faced with the increasing demands of balancing work and family life, may find it challenging to provide as many outdoor experiences as they would like for their children.open_in_new There is, also, an ever-increasing fear of the unknown driving parents to choose situations conducive to increased oversight of children’s activities. In a study of 2000 parents in the UK, 63% percent of parents believe it is more dangerous to play outside now then when they were children. Whether traffic, stranger danger, or a fear of ticks carrying the Lyme disease-causing bacterium (B. burgdorferi), parents are sometimes hesitant to possibly risk their children’s safety.open_in_new

A group of homeschooled children have a play date along the Discovery Trail in the Nags Head Woods Preserve. North Carolina.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Ben Herndon)

Outdoor exploration and play stimulates all aspects of childhood development in greater and more numerous ways than any indoor activities.

Moore & Wong, 1997

A 2016 study conducted in New Zealand asked 187 students, ages nine to eleven, about their frequently visited places of nature.open_in_new All of the interviewed students had a publicly accessible garden or yard in their neighborhood and 90% of the students had a neighborhood park. The reduction of nature connection found in this study was determined to be due to lifestyle changes (electronics and parental limits) rather than access to biodiverse landscapes and places. But why is this important? Spending time in nature has strong implications for a child’s healthy development.open_in_new Below we highlight research suggesting that spending time in nature aids the development of important academic, physical, emotional, and social skills.

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Photo © ThoroughlyReviewed

There is overwhelming evidence supporting the idea that nature interactions can further one’s cognitive development. Research conducted in 2000open_in_new and 2002open_in_new suggested that proximity to nature and views of nature at home improve children’s ability to concentrate. Children with nature interactions or greener interactions at home scored higher on concentration tests. In fact, the “greener” the space and the longer the interaction, the higher the child’s score. Similarly, a 2001 study showed that children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) were better able to concentrate on tasks after nature interactions.open_in_new Furthermore, nature interactions lead to an improvement of awareness, reasoning, and observation skills, ultimately improving cognitive development.open_in_new

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Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Kinzie + Riehm)

A lack of access to natural environments and nature experiences in developed areas has been associated to the increase in mental illness.open_in_new 50% of the U.S. population currently lives in urban areas; a number predicted to rise to 70% by 2020. If those findings hold true, and our urban landscapes continue to exclude nature, we could see a corresponding increase in mental health illnesses. The good news is that even a simple walk in a natural setting has been shown to significantly reduce the activity in the brain associated with sadness and negative thoughts.open_in_new While it might not be that simple to solve mental illness, it is encouraging that even small exposures have a potentially important psychological impact.

Adrian Austin swinging from vines in the Nags Head Woods Preserve while on a group play date with other homeschoolers and their parents. North Carolina.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Ben Herndon)

Children with regular nature interactions are more likely to be physically fit. Studies conducted in 2004open_in_new and 2010open_in_new observed that children with consistent nature exposure had more advanced motor skills, including coordination, balance, and agility. These children were also sick less often than their peers.

December 2015. Two girls observe a ghost crab (aka sand crab) along the beach while Ionie holds the seeds from dried sea bean pods in her hands at The Nature Conservancy's Blowing Rocks Preserve on Jupiter Island, Florida. Blowing Rocks Preserve was donat

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Kinzie + Riehm)

Studies have also shown that children who spend time in nature display more advanced emotional development than their peers.open_in_new In general, children who spend time in nature have more positive feelingsopen_in_new and interactionsopen_in_new with each other. There is also research reporting exposure to a “diverse, natural environment” reduces or eliminates bullying among children which has been reported in 35% of children aged 12-18.open_in_new

Playing at the West Seattle ferry dock.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Jeff Marsh)

How to weave more nature into your children’s lives

  • Weave in new outdoor activities. Start with The Nature Conservancy’s family fun page.Every season they releases an activity guide with suggested outdoor fun.
  • Bring it to school. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birdsleuth program provides fun, educational activities for K-12.
  • Encourage your children to read books with nature themes. Some popular suggestions include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Little House on the Prairie series as well as The Giving Tree for younger audiences.
  • Make time for unstructured nature interactions. Instead of spending another school semester in structured sports, opt for nature exploration. If you don’t live in an area where that is easily done, try searching the internet for community nature programs for children, or sign up for family friendly volunteer events. Some cities even have programs called “forest preschool” which holds “class” outside, in all weather, in all seasons.
  • Take a short walk with your children around the neighborhood.
  • Combine technology with nature experiences. Explore your yard or neighborhood and bring that knowledge back and contribute to citizen science through mapping habitat on Habitat Network or reporting animals you found on iNaturalist, bird sightings on eBird or Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBs) and nest sightings on NestWatch. Even Pokemon Go gets folks out of doors in meaningful ways.
  • Make your child the expert. Teach them to observe careful and perhaps they will take on a new interest that leads them straight outside every chance they get. Photo-documenting caterpillars? Identifying scat? Growing carrots? Sometimes children can be enticed into these activities because it gives them an identity as an expert. Let them post videos of their outdoor hobby on YouTube, or host an instagram feed devoted to ladybugs.
Young boy taking a photograph of the General Sherman sequoia tree (the largest tree on earth by volume), in Sequoia National Park, California. This year, visitors celebrate the National Park Service's 100th Anniversary.

Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Nick Hall)

In an age of technology, we all could stand to spend a little more time outdoors, but the reality is that we all have things to get done. The natural world is all around us and there are various ways to connect and interact, which can include technology. Try not to get overwhelmed — dig in to a few different activities and figure out which works the best for you and your family. It doesn’t matter as much how or what you do, only thats we all benefit from time spent outdoors.