The Nature Connection
Is there a connection between health and nature? You bet! Among the benefits to a person's well-being, exposure to nature and the outdoors enhances a person's:
Fitness - Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies, an important strategy in helping the one in three American kids who are obese get fit.
Health - Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect kids from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues.
Eyesight - Children who spend time outdoors have better distance vision and a lower chance of nearsightedness.
Attention Span - Exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.
Test Scores - Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.
Critical Thinking - Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of critical thinking skills.
Stress Reduction - Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.
Emotional Health - Play protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Social Skills - Nature makes children kinder, enhancing social interactions, value for community, and close relationships.
Keeping our kids connected to nature is not a difficult task. Opportunities abound and once you know what to look for, these opportunities will present themselves.
A child doesn't have to go off to nature camp to reap the benefits; a child gains as much (if not more) from simple activities such as studying birds through binoculars, investigating a pond or tide pool, raising and releasing butterflies or tadpoles, or growing vegetables. Children can visit a library, watch a nature film, or surf the internet (safely) for a wealth of information. The best part is - you don't need a college degree in science to be a good nature mentor - all you need is a caring attitude and your own stories to share.
One of your opportunities as a parent or educator is to ignite a passion for learning and provide the tools and guidance with which children can make their own discoveries. The most important thing to remember is that your enthusiasm is contagious - so remember to have fun learning alongside the kids!Before running to your computer to "Google" the Amazon rainforest or the African savannah, consider the importance of teaching LOCAL ecology. Your backyard, a regional park, a nearby grove of trees - all of these are slices of nature waiting to be explored. Children who learn about their own surroundings are more likely to advocate for the environment as they come to appreciate the interdependence of life and the value of natural resources.
Children who experience nature enjoy an abundance of benefits including higher test scores and problem-solving skills, creativity, and enhanced social skills, besides the obvious benefits of physical activity and fresh air. Following are links to literature documenting the benefits children gain when they are exposed to nature and science:
Children's Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: a Focus on Educators and Educational Settings (Children & Nature Network, 2012): Literature reviews with nature provides to children as well as the type and amount of contact that children have with the outdoors and nature.
Grounds for Action (Canada, 2003) & Graining Ground (Canada, 2003): Research showing that children who experienced school grounds with diverse natural settings were more physically active, were more aware of nutrition, were more civil to one another, were more creative, and were learning in an enhanced way. Furthermore, teachers who experienced school grounds with diverse natural settings showed a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.
Health Benefits to Children from Contact with the Outdoors and Nature (Children & Nature Network, 2012): Literature reviews focusing on outdoor and nature contact and children’s health and well-being.
Learning Through Landscapes: Using School Grounds as an Educational Resource (by Kirsty Young, 1990): Case studies of thirteen British school sites that have incorporated natural settings into their parcels.
A Little Science Goes a Long Way: Engaging Kids Improves Math, Language Scores (Washington State University News, 2012): Article explaining how engaging elementary school students in science for as little as ten hours a year can lead to improved test scores in math and language arts.
Look, Don't Touch - The Problem with Environmental Education (Orion Magazine, 2012): Article describing the kinds of experiences that will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment.
Nature Play as an Everyday Joy of Childhood (Ecology Global Network, 2012): Article excerpt - "None of these steps towards home-based nature play require great knowledge, training, or expense. They can be implemented bit by bit, and your plans can be in constant flux as you discover what your kids and their friends most enjoy. The ultimate goal is to create enough nature play “critical mass” so that your kids are excited to play in their own yards—day after day, and whenever they wish."
Outdoor Activity Reduces the Prevalence of Myopia in Children (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2008): Study revealing that higher levels of total time spent outdoors, rather than sport per se, were associated with a lower incidence of myopia (nearsightedness).
Researching the Child-Nature Connection (California State Parks, 2008): Research explaining that children who are connected to nature experience greater mental, spiritual, and physical health; lowers levels of obesity and diabetes; the development of conflict resolution skills; enhanced motivation and self-efficacy skills; therapeutic effects, especially where ADD/ADHD occurs; improvement in analytical thinking skills such as creativity, problem-solving, and reasoning; higher science and math test scores; an appreciation for natural resources; and a sense of stewardship in adulthood.
Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contacts (Pediatrics Magazine, 2012): Research revealing that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important for children, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.
Spending Time in Nature: the Secret to Good Health? (Mother Nature Network, 2010): Article focusing on the importance of forests to our health and well-being.
This is Your Brain on Nature (National Geographic, Jan. 2016): Article explaining that when we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor.
Young Children's Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children's Development and the Earth's Future (White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, 2004): Article focusing on how children can benefit by maximizing the informal play and learning opportunities that natural outdoor play environments offer.
Why Kids Need Nature: An Interview with Richard Louv (Scholastic Parent and Child): Interview with the author of "Last Child in the Woods" about the importance of nature to children's health and development.
What's My Role?
If you are an urban planner,
- INCORPORATE natural corridors for wildlife in your plans, which serve to bring nature into our communities and allow for wildlife health and genetic diversity.
- REPLACE vacant lots with naturally landscaped pocket parks and community gardens, which allow every citizen to enjoy nature.
If you are an educator or school administrator,
- INTEGRATE nature study into curriculum such as science, literature, social studies, history, and mathematics.
- GO OUTDOORS to share a lesson with your students.
If you are a parent or guardian,
- FACILITATE nature for your child, offering ample opportunities for interaction with nature and a protective, watchful eye.
- SHARE your own stories about nature.
- SPEND TIME OUTDOORS with your child.
If you are a child,
EXPLORE! YOU have the most important job of all!