Over the last two decades childhood has moved indoors. The average child now spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and more than six hours each day in front of an electronic screen. What is even more alarming, according to the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), is the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 has more than doubled in the past 20 years, to 17 percent of children in this age group. The rate of clinically obese adolescents (aged 12-19) more than tripled, to 17.6 percent. The CDC concludes that a major missing ingredient is an hour per day of moderate physical activity.
There is mounting evidence that shows that outdoor activities, especially those in a natural setting benefit children’s psychological well-being. This includes reduced stress, more creativity and improved concentration. “The basic finding seems to be yes, nature does seem to be really good for kids,” says Frances Kuo, PhD, founder of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Psychologists have studied the role outdoor play benefits children’s mental health since the early 1980s, when Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, PhD, introduced his theory of “biophilia,” which argues that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world. Subsequent studies have shown how important outdoor play is to the mental and physical health of children.
One of the most influential longitudinal studies, led by Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, PhD, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6).
Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children in rural upstate New York, Wells found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child’s resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress (Environment and Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 3).
In plain language, what this all means is that ensuring your child gets plenty of free play outdoor time profits their wellbeing on all levels. The closer to nature, the better it is for your child. This does not mean you have to go camping every weekend or hike through Banff National Park. Something as simple as running around with the dog in the back yard can help. It is never too early to start taking your children outside to play and to connect with nature.
“As experts in child development and learning, psychologists are helping children reconnect with nature by conducting research, incorporating the outdoors into clinical interventions and educating parents”, says Erickson, a director of early childhood mental health training programs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis
“Making time to get outside to play, run and explore could be a really important part of a treatment plan,” she says, and goes on “Creative exploration and firsthand experience discovering nature appear to be the best ways for children to learn…” In a study published in the September 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 94, No. 9), found that green outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms significantly more than activities in built outdoor and indoor settings. “If we had kids moving around and burning off energy, I think we would have much less difficulty with kids having trouble paying attention in the classroom,” Erickson says.
Studies Show Getting Off The Couch Helps:
- Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies.
- Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
- Being out there improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.
- Exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.
- Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.
- Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.
- Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.
- Play protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression.
- Nature makes you nicer, enhancing social interactions, value for community and close relationships.
Encouraging your child to step away from the electronics and step out into unstructured outdoor free play from a young age improves their physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The closer to nature the better, so let’s work together to turn our “couch potatoes” into healthy well rounded children!