We all want our children to be happy, healthy, and physically fit. As busy as we are, it’s important to find time to help children develop good habits that contribute to a lifelong focus on wellness. We may hope that feeding them nutritious foods or enrolling them in gymnastics or karate classes will be enough to accomplish these goals.
Though these activities can certainly have a positive impact on health and fitness, the reality is that one of the best gifts we can give our children is to introduce them to the great outdoors, laying the groundwork for a life-long connection to the natural world.
In the recently updated, Last Child in the Woods (Louv, 2005), the author coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon of children’s disconnection from the natural world. Louv notes that young people are going outside much less frequently than in the past due to increased access to technology and perhaps our fears as parents as well.
And yet we know that when children are outside and surrounded by nature, they experience an ever-changing and free-flowing environment that stimulates all the senses. Going outside to play fosters children's intellectual, emotional, social and physical development.
The natural world is a giant, open-ended learning laboratory. Children are innate scientists and love to experience the sights, scents, sounds, and textures of the outdoors. Nature provides countless opportunities for discovery, creativity, and problem-solving.
Building and digging in dirt, watching worms wriggle through the soil, gazing up at clouds, jumping in puddles, listening to birds sing, smelling fresh-cut grass, collecting seeds, or building things with twigs and mud provide endless opportunities for discovery. Interacting with the natural world allows children to learn by doing, and experiment with ideas. In the natural world, children think, question, make suppositions, and thereby develop inquisitive minds.
Being outside feels good. Children are free to explore, move about, and make noise; all delightful forms of self-expression that are often restricted indoors. Being in nature enables children to run, jump, hop, skip, climb, roll, and shout, which relaxes, and reduces tension, anxiety, and restlessness.
Researchers have found that outdoor play calms children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Furthermore, nature enhances a sense of peace and often brings out nurturing qualities in children. Many energetic children slow down to dig a hole in sand, watch a ladybug crawl, or spend focused time playing with a stick in a mud puddle.
When children play outdoors there may be opportunities to interact with new and different playmates. In nature, children can play alone or connect with one another, learn to share, and problem solve. In the natural world, children often collaborate to make up games and rules because there are no prescribed sets of instructions. When exploring outside, school-age children may not be in close proximity to adults, which gives them the opportunity to make up their own rules and solve their own problems, without inhibition.
Often, when involved in the natural world, even boisterous, active children may slow down and learn to focus on being gentle. They also may develop empathy and reach out to console a friend who seems hurt or sad.
The fresh air of the natural world is invigorating and offers endless opportunities for physical activity, which, in turn, builds strong bodies. Exposure to sunlight means children absorb vitamin D which has many positive benefits, including contributing to a strong immune system.
Outside, children are able to be more physically active than when they play indoors, thus burning more calories. Climbing a tree, chasing a friend or a bird, standing on one foot, falling over, hanging from bars, swinging, jumping over or into puddles, all help develop a child’s sense of balance, coordination and strength. Being outside, moving about and playing in nature, contribute to a child’s fitness. It isn’t planned or prescribed - it is child-centered, self-directed and spontaneous.
Young children benefit in many ways from being outdoors, AND they still need our supervision. Your child’s open-ended play, whether digging in the garden, running as fast as she can, or collecting wildflowers on a long walk, will be enhanced if you join in. And you can offer guidance as your child tries new activities that may seem challenging to you.
Nothing beats trying to cross a stream by stepping from rock to rock (even if a sneaker gets wet or a knee gets bruised), or climbing a tree higher than you knew he could climb. Providing a reasonable balance of risk and safety is our job as parents. Providing some level of challenge allows children to learn the next skill.
In addition to the individual benefits gained by being connected to nature, there is a collective benefit shared by all of us. Children all over the world play outside - a unity of shared experiences. Our children are future stewards of the earth. In order to raise adults who are passionate about protecting the environment and preserving our planet, they must first develop a deep love for it. The only way to enable children to grow comfortable in nature is to open the door and let them out to explore the wonder and awe of the natural world.
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