5 Reasons Why Nature Is Great for Your Kids
I read a startling fact the other day: children now spend an average of 3.6 hours a day in front of screens (1). And want to know the even scarier part? Excess screen time has been linked to a decrease in memory, language skills, and task completion (2).
Now maybe I’m old school, or perhaps because Canada has a lot of trees, but when I was growing up, every day was filled with outdoor play in nature. Rain or shine, summer or winter, my sister and I were outside. And although technology has an important role in children’s education, I find it discouraging that outdoor play and spending time in nature have been largely replaced in favour of spending time in front of tablets and computers.
While countries like Canada have proposed restrictions on screen time for children and youth, the responsibility to monitor screen usage lies primarily on parents, caregivers, and educators. This is no easy feat with the vast amount of technology and media that surround our children. Although getting our kids to "unplug" can be challenging, there are incredible benefits in making the effort to get them outdoors.
Here are 5 reasons why encouraging your kids to play in nature can make a positive difference in their mental and physical development:
1. Increases Mental Focus
Research shows that spending time in nature can help improve mental focus in children. In a 2008 study, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) participated in walks in three different outdoor settings: a neighbourhood, a downtown area, and a city park. When children completed the walk in the park, their levels of concentration were greater compared to their walks in the other two areas. The researchers concluded that spending time in natural environments may be an affordable and accessible way to support children in managing their ADHD symptoms (3).
Unlike technology with its ever-changing information and images, nature requires a different type of attention. Children are encouraged to explore their physical surroundings by looking closely at the world around them. As the study above suggests, a simple 20-minute walk can be enough to help children focus better in their learning environment.
2. Supports Positive Mental Health
Getting your kids outdoors is also a great way to support their mental health, particularly when it comes to managing their electronic and social media use. In a 2018 study of over 1 million American high school students, researchers found a concerning link between tech use and psychological well-being. Teens who spent more of their time on-screen than off-screen had lower levels of positive well-being (4). In comparison, adolescents who focused less on screen-based activities and more time on physical activity, in-person socialization, and homework felt greater levels of happiness and satisfaction (5).
Teaching our children how to have a healthy balance between technology use and off-screen activities is a great way to support their mental health and lessen their anxiety and stress levels. By encouraging our kids to get involved in nature-based activities, we can help ensure that they are well rounded individuals and less dependent on tech for their entertainment.
3. Fosters Imagination
In addition to supporting positive mental health, nature also has the ability to let your children's imaginations run wild!
How many of us were the kid who said, "I'm bored," only to be told, "Go play outside!" While our parents' only intentions may have been to get us out of the house (and out of their hair!), there is a huge benefit to being bored: it sparks creativity. And unlike relying on tech to alleviate the boredom, which can be akin to "eating junk food" (6), being outdoors can help to foster children's imagination in amazing ways through unstructured play.
Unstructured play, also known as free play, enables children to be in a play environment where they lead the games and activities. For example, children are free to create their own games with improvised rules that change as they go along. In an outdoor setting, this play may involve working with friends to build a fort, or discovering little creatures in the leaves. Unstructured outdoor play has several benefits for children: it can improve their communication and problem-solving skills, and encourage them to learn about teamwork and taking turns (7). It also encourages them to use their senses by observing and interacting with the world around them.
4. Improves Physical Health
One of the best things about getting our kids out in nature is the incredible benefit this can have on their physical health. Whereas some parents plan full-out camping trips, getting kids outdoors can be as simple as making good use of the neighbourhood park. Research shows that children who live less than a mile from a park are more physically active (8). And while a trip to the park may not seem like much, the National Environmental Education Fund argues otherwise: kids who live near a park are 5 times more likely to maintain a healthy weight (9). Plus, there's the added bonus of being able to make new friends - for both the kids and you!
Getting the kids outdoors doesn't have to be an elaborately planned and financed activity - it can be affordable and fun! Whether it's taking them to the park once a week after school, or exploring a walking trail nearby, when parents make a consistent effort to get their children outside, they help their kids develop a healthy relationship to physical activity and exercise.
5. Teaches Environmental Responsibility
As a new mom, I spend countless nights wide awake in bed thinking about how best to care for my baby. Some of these concerns - Is she eating enough? Is her development on track? - seem minor compared to the bigger question of, What kind of future will she have on this planet? With the alarm of climate change sounding, I think it's safe to assume that many parents are concerned with the future of environmental sustainability and food security. Encouraging our children to interact with and explore nature is one of the best ways for us to teach them about the importance of conserving our forests and natural habitats. And it could make a significant difference in how their generation responds to the environmental issues we face ahead.
Getting Back to Nature
With the constant barrage of new technology around us, it's no surprise that our children spend less time outdoors compared to any generation before them. And although we may struggle to get our kids to turn off their screens, the research consistently shows that the benefits outweigh any grief they may give us for sending them outdoors. I know I'm better for having had parents who sent me outside, and I know my daughter will be too.
1) Walsh, Jeremy, et al. “Associations Between 24 Hour Movement Behaviours and Global Cognition in US Children: a Cross-Sectional Observational Study.” The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 2018.
3) Faber, Andrea, and Frances Kuo. “Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park.” Journal of Attention Disorders, vol. 12, iss. 5, 2009.
4) Twenge, Jean M., Martin, Gabrielle N., and W. Keith Campbell. “Decreases in Psychological Well-being Among American Adolescents After 2012 and Links to Screen Time During the Rise of Smartphone Technology.” Emotion, vol. 18, iss. 6, Sept. 2018, 765-780.
6) Thompson, Clive. "How Being Bored Out of Your Mind Makes You More Creative." Wired. Jan. 5, 2017.
7) Help Me Grow. "Why Unstructured Play is Important to Child Development." Retrieved Dec. 6, 2018.
8) National Environmental Education Fund (NEEF). "Children and Nature Infographic." Retrieved Dec. 6, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.