How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter
"It's so peaceful out there and the air smells so good....It's like you're free when you go out there. It's your own time. Sometimes I go outside when I'm mad -- and then, just with the peacefulness, I'm better. I come back home happy, and my mom doesn't even know why."
“Something else was different when we were young: our parents were outdoors. I’m not saying they were joining health clubs and things of that sort, but they were out of the house, out on the porch, talking to neighbors. As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States. Their parents may be out jogging, but the kids just aren’t outside.” ― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Did you grow up as I did, climbing trees, building dams in the stream, and chasing fireflies as the evening darkened? If you did, you'll agree with me that all children deserve those experiences.
Nowadays, though, many of us don't have yards. Even if we do, when we try to send our kids outside, there's often no one to play with. And most parents worry that we have to stay outside with them to keep them safe -- but we have to make dinner!
So most kids spend most of their time inside. As a result, the average fifth grader, given a choice, prefers to stay inside, close to electrical sockets and all the entertainment sources they power.
But your grandmother was right: Kids need fresh air and exercise. We all do. Families who find ways to be outdoors together nurture not only their bodies, but their connection to all of life -- and to each other. Kids who spend time outside in nature, research shows, are:
- Calmer - This is particularly important for kids with ADHD because it lowers their need for medication, but fresh air soothes the senses of all children.
- Happier - Studies show sunshine, fresh air and physical activity all encourage good moods and reduce tendencies toward depression.
- Healthier - Many kids who don't get enough time outdoors are Vitamin D deficient, affecting health and mood. Indoor air is also usually less healthy. Simply walking in nature decreases stress hormones and blood pressure.
- Less likely to be overweight - Pediatricians recommend at least an hour of active physical play daily during childhood to protect against obesity and diabetes.
- Better vision - Kids who play outdoors more have better vision and less need for eyeglasses. That's partly because they stare at screens less and use their eyes to look at things that are more distant. But it turns out that Vitamin D also plays a role. And the latest research indicates that regular exposure to sunlight is important for healthy eye function.
- Better students - Research shows that kids who play outdoors actually have longer attention spans, more frustration tolerance, and do better in school. Kids even do better on tests if they are allowed to play first. It's not just that it gets their wiggles out. It's all that oxygen to the brain.
- More creative - Outdoor play is often less structured than what kids do indoors with technology, so kids exercise their imaginations as well as their bodies.
The answer to our nature deprived modern lives? Set your life up so both you and your child can be outdoors more often. We know that usually kids won't be able to be outdoors without parents. So parents need to get outside, too.
First, set up any outdoor space you have access to so that it's inviting, and spend time outside with your child. A sandbox, wading pool, swing, climbing structure or garden will keep your child entertained for hours. But if permanent structures aren't possible, think impermanent: A tablecloth teepee or a bucket of water with funnels and cups, or a shovel to dig a hole you can later refill.
Second, spend time as a family in nature -- hiking, playing tag, biking, simply walking together in a beautiful place. It allows your family to regroup and get back in sync. It makes wonderful memories. And it's a great workout for everyone.
This doesn't have to be a big production. If you're lucky enough to have your own yard, you have unlimited options, from kicking a ball around to camping out in a tent. But every city has public parks, and every family can find something to do outside that feels fun. Two important ground rules:
- Turn off the cell phones. Yours. Theirs. REALLY. The world will be waiting for you when you get back. This is quality time to focus on family. Soon enough, your child will want to be with friends, not with you. Enjoy this time to connect. Be a role model, demonstrating what you value.
- If you choose to engage in a sport, minimize the competition in favor of the fun. Make sure the rules are relaxed for little ones so everyone enjoys themselves.
Look for opportunities to enjoy nature, as well as opportunities to enjoy playing outside. If you're stuck for ideas, here are some suggestions:
1. Take a blanket, snacks and a ball or frisbee to the park.
Play kickball or soccer or catch. Blow bubbles. Play tag.
2. Go on a family bike ride.
This gets better and better as kids get older, but you can rent tandem bikes when they're young.
3. Go on a nature walk.
Collect rocks or leaves. Look for animal footprints. Watch bugs. But remember, soaking up the smells, sounds and sights is sufficient. You don't need to take your child out of her heart and into her head by giving her a science lecture. If she asks questions, by all means follow her natural curiosity, and help her look up answers when she gets home. But sometimes watching a butterfly is more transformative than reading about it.
4. Send kids on a scavenger hunt.
Keep it simple, like:
- something red
- something tiny
- something that moves
- something bigger than your hand
- something that bends
- something beautiful.
Make sure everyone wins!
5. Get wet.
Give kids water and they'll find ways to play with it. Invite the neighborhood kids over for a water party. Set up the sprinkler and cut up a watermelon.
6. Plant a garden or window box.
Even a window box gives you the opportunity to garden with your child. There's magic in planting seeds and watching them sprout into plants, and in eating lettuce that you grew yourself.
7. Try a night walk.
Bring flashlights for fun and safety, but be sure to turn them off for listening to the nature sounds and star gazing.
8. Fires are magic.
If you have a safe place for a campfire, don't miss the opportunity to sit outside telling stories of when you were a kid, or what your kids did when they were younger. Sing songs. Roast marshmallows, make s'mores. Don't forget to just relax in silence and watch the fire. (Do you have a little pyromaniac who wants to build the fire? This is the perfect opportunity to teach safety and let your child wield the matches.)
These are the memories your children will treasure as they get older. And every child deserves the connection nature provides to the essence of life. You're feeding your child's soul as well as her body.
There are a ton of ideas for kids' outdoor play, both with and without parents, on my Pinterest Outdoor Play board.
I highly recommend Richard Louv's inspirational book Last Child in the Woods. He says it all much more eloquently than I can, and offers you the studies to prove it.