Having trouble getting your children outside? Kids need nature. Research shows nature reduces kids' stress and ADHD symptoms, and may even help them do better in school.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
—John Muir (naturalist, 1838 to 1914)
Research proves Muir right
While John Muir was not a doctor, his views on the healing powers of nature from more than a century ago were way ahead of their time. Today, numerous studies and reports show that nature provides a variety of physical and psychological health benefits to children. These benefits range from reducing stress and symptoms of attention disorders, to improved healing and even improved academic performance.
Whether it is global warming, acts of terrorism, bullying, or other stressful acts, children today have a lot on their minds. In a blog written for the Children & Nature Network, pediatrician Lawrence Rosen states, “Kids are being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine headaches at all-time high rates. Whatever labels we want to use, the message is clear—our children are suffering from stress.”
Fortunately, trees and nature reduce stress and help with depression. Rosen believes that getting children back in nature is important for their health and wellness, and many studies support this belief. Not only is nature important in maintaining health, it is also beneficial in helping us heal.
Nature improves student performance
Nature also helps students. In his study High School Landscapes and Student Performance, Dr. Rodney H. Matsuoka found that nature had a positive effect on academic performance and behaviour of high school students who had exposure to nature, including having views of trees, shrubs, and other natural features.
Unfortunately, children today spend considerably less time in nature compared to past generations. Part of the reason for the reduction in time spent enjoying wilderness areas is the incredible amount of time that kids spend watching or playing with electronic media.
According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the time that children spend with electronic media has increased significantly, with kids eight to 18 years old spending on average more than seven hours a day on activities that include watching television, playing video games, listening to music, and surfing the internet.
This disconnect with nature led author Richard Louv to introduce the term “nature-deficit disorder” and to address the problems resulting from a lack of nature in his books Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008, 2011).
This more sedentary lifestyle also leads to numerous health issues. The Canadian Health Measures Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada provides evidence that in recent decades the health of Canadian children has deteriorated, physical fitness has declined, and childhood obesity has risen. There is even a concern that this generation of children could be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.
A natural prescription
Spending time in nature usually involves exercise, which also helps with health issues such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cholesterol levels. The benefits of nature, including exercising in nature, have not gone unnoticed by the medical community.
In the US, a “Park Prescriptions” program exists in which the National Park Service works with health care professionals who write prescriptions for their patients to walk, bicycle, and paddle in a national park. While this concept isn’t as prevalent in Canada, it does exist.
Nature has so many benefits for kids—and assuredly for many others—which haven’t been discovered yet. Working together, parents, educators, and health care practitioners can ensure a healthy future for our children.
Getting children engaged in nature
Many children take to nature like a duck to water. For those who need some gentle persuading to take a wilderness walk, here are some suggestions.
Match the environment to suit the child’s age.
Young children often enjoy wetlands where frogs and turtles are common, so a boardwalk through a marsh may be an ideal outing. Older children may prefer a more rugged environment such as a trail through a rocky area.
Invite a friend or two along.
Children enjoy the companionship of friends, and exploring a natural environment together is not only fun and great exercise, but it also provides an excellent learning experience as friends discover nature together.
Plan nature outings based on a child’s favourite school subjects.
Children who enjoy geography may like to hike in an area featuring drumlins, valleys, or lakes. Children interested in history will enjoy walking a historic footpath. Those who like biology will enjoy visiting areas that are home to numerous species of birds, other animals, and plants.
Entice a reluctant participant with fun activities.
For children who are particularly opposed to spending time in a natural setting, you can entice them with a fun, relaxing wilderness excursion. For example, some parks offer river tubing where you can enjoy nature’s beauty while floating on a tube!
Minimizing electronic media
The lives of many children literally revolve around electronic media. The Canadian Paediatric Society doesn’t recommend “screen-based activities” for children under two years of age and advises limiting older children’s television viewing to less than one to two hours a day. The following are ways to minimize children’s use of electronic media.
- Set a good example. Children often develop similar habits to parents, so minimize your time spent watching TV, on the computer, playing video games, and texting.
- Encourage sports, outdoor activities, and family time in nature.
- Encourage reading, crafts, and hobbies.
- Do not allow electronic media in your child’s bedroom, and set a reasonable time at night when electronic media is shut off.
- Establish specified times for watching television and movies. Family movie nights where quality films are watched by the whole family is a more positive use of electronic media.