If you are old enough to be a parent or grandparent, you probably spent a lot of time as a child playing outside, getting dirty, and coming home as happy as a pig in slop. Whether you grew up in the country or in a small town or a city, more than likely there were amble opportunities for you to spend time on your own exploring nature – in your backyard or neighborhood, a local park, or nearby field or woodland. You probably have fond memories of having the time to watch a ladybug climb a tall blade of grass, build a fort in the woods, or catch lightning bugs in a jar. Unfortunately, too many kids today rarely have the chance to have direct experiences with nature.
According to a piece by Scholastic Parent & Child, the lack of free, unstructured play in nature is taking its toll on our children. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, maintains that this disconnect from the natural world is producing ill effects in both mind and body and he stresses the importance of reversing that trend. “We should not think of a child’s experience in nature as an extracurricular activity,” says Louv. “It should be thought of as vital to children’s health and development.”
You don’t have to go any further than Willie Morris’s classic tales of growing up in small-town Mississippi to understand the magic of having the freedom to explore nature on your own as a child. Wading in the creek, climbing trees, building forts in the woods can make lasting impressions on who you will be as an adult and how you will view your world.
Research suggests that a connection to nature is biologically innate; as humans, we have an affinity for the natural world. When children spend most of their time indoors, they miss out. Problems associated with alienation from nature can include: depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. Kids who have direct access to nature are better learners. Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase attention spans.
When a child is out in nature, all the senses get activated. Suddenly the child is immersed in something bigger than himself, rather than focusing narrowly on one thing, such as a computer screen. The experience involves seeing, hearing, touching, even tasting. Out in nature, a child’s brain has the chance to rejuvenate.
Of course there are some obvious reasons why parents are much more guarded about giving their kids time for unstructured, unsupervised play outdoors in nature. It is a different world today than it was even a couple of decades ago. Fears of child predators, random violence, traffic hazards and nature itself, such as disease carrying insects, water hazards, concerns about falls, even getting dirty are a few of the worries at the top of parents’ minds these days.
We all long for the days when we could let kids run loose and come back dirty and happy at the end of the day, but in reality this is not likely to happen anymore. We have to come up with new ways for kids to have direct contact with nature. This probably means parents have to get out there with their kids and explore with them. Schools, too, including preschools, can incorporate natural surroundings.
A lot of parents are already doing the right thing, almost instinctively. Maybe they just remember how they used to play, and want to provide the same experiences for their kids. Parents don’t have to let their kids roam free in the neighborhood or nearby woods, they can take their children hiking or let them run around in the local park. Making a conscious effort to spend more time outdoors as a family or to create natural areas at home in the backyard or even on an apartment patio or terrace, can bring nature a little closer for our little ones and foster a love for the outdoors and all living things that will last a lifetime.
Sources: Scholastic Parent & Child; The Guardian; www.childrenandnature.org.
Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide, helping to Open a World of Possible for children across the globe.