No one argues that being in nature is healthy for children. I believe there are different ways to experience nature, and that experience can affect how children view their role in the world. No matter which way children experience nature what won’t change are the wonderful things nature does for children. The positive effects are seen in so many domains, from increased vitamin D absorption to better focus to being more physically active. Here is a sampling of what nature can provide children.
Even children can have stress these days. Do they have a test at school? Are they worried about their status among their friends? Any number of
things can cause stress in a child’s life. Cortisol is a wonderful hormone to have in your body. It does things like regulate blood pressure and control the sleep/wake cycle among other things. (1) What it is best known for is engaging the body’s fight or flight mechanism. Fight or flight is vital in a crisis, but too often these days it can be awakened by events that are decidedly NOT life or death. When children enter a natural setting their cortisol levels are lowered (2) . At the same time that children’s cortisol levels are held in check natural endorphins are released. Endorphins can reduce stress and pain and produce an all around happy feeling. It is said that the effect endorphins have on the body is similar to that of opioids, but obviously much safer. (3)
Schools have been known to eat up recess time with extra work time if children are not doing well. I remember losing out on recess because I didn’t do an assignment correctly. According to current science that is the absolutely wrong approach.
A number of studies done with children and with adults show that concentration increases after being in nature. Some studies even show that viewing a picture of nature can help with concentration. (4) Being on a walk can help children, even possibly those with ADHD concentrate better. (5) One study concentrated on how many times students needed redirection after learning a lesson outside or in the classroom. It was clear that learning outside helped the students focus once they returned inside. (6)
Promotes Physical Activity
Jumping and running seem to occur naturally when you put a child’s feet in contact with open ground. Freedom to enter the wilderness can help
promote physical activity, which in turn helps children get healthy in a number of ways beyond weight loss, like strength building and vitamin D absorption. (7)
Outdoor activity has actually been shown to be better than a romp around the gymnasium. According to one study children who play outside engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity 11% of the time, which is much more than the 1% of the same intensity of activity for kids playing inside. (8)
How Do Children Interact With Nature?
So we know that on so many levels being in nature is healthy and good for children, but I think our next step is to consider how we interact with nature. This may even help decide how children interact with nature and issues regarding nature as adults.
King Of The World
There is the paved path that goes past a tree on the way home from school, or in the neighborhood. It is easy to lead a class of children past
your basic neighborhood squirrel and note the nut in its paws. It is good to do it, even. It is a start. You can start talking about the creatures that live around you in the city. This may be the beginning of encouraging children to notice the nature they drive and walk past. They might get some benefits unknowingly, relax a bit, feel a sort of connection and want to pick up litter next time they see it. This view tends to be the human as overlord of the planet dynamic. Nature is there for our benefit. It is a safe retreat from the stresses of life.
Speck In A Grand Universe
Another view of nature ventures a bit off script. It might allow, or even require a dirty, precarious tree climb. There are multitudes of things that can be learned from the ascent of just one maple (9).How strong are you and how strong could you be? Would it make a difference? What kind of bugs can you find at slightly higher altitudes? Are strong branches comfortable? Will they give a bit under your weight and still hold you? This is no longer the view of the overlord. If you find a beehive, you may be in trouble. If you misjudge a branch you could get hurt.
Death can be a part of the natural experience that can evoke emotion and life lessons. Animals aren’t just cute. They have lives and are born and die. I often encourage my kids to take a close look at the decomposing bird in my yard before disposing of it. Not often can you potentially look inside and out of one creature at the same time. We are in the habit of watching nature videos at our house. While they don’t constitute our physical presence in nature, they do give us a glimpse into the life and death scenarios that are a reality in nature. When you see the bloody snout of a wolf pop up from a fresh kill, nature no longer appears peaceful and safe. Nature appears to have a delicate balance that we humans don’t entirely understand. Seeing the vast odd glowing sea creatures we are just beginning to discover reminds us how little we know about the world around us.
If we venture into the world on our local greenway trail grinding ants into the pavement we will experience nature, and even reap many of the
benefits listed above. We will develop an appreciation of what nature can do for us. It can be valuable and healthy to take from nature things that will benefit us. I believe that if we leave the safety of the trail, if we observe the life and death struggle under our feet and around the world, we might develop a deeper respect of our small part in the larger ecosystem of Earth. Through scratches, near misses, and understanding the true lives of the creatures our kids have in plush form on their beds we might feel more awed by the mysteries of our world. Being humbled and slightly terrified by the possibilities lying wait beyond suburban existence might be a more realistic view of the precarious balance of life on earth. Maybe it will challenge us to expect more of ourselves, our communities and our nations.
- “What Is Cortisol?” WebMD.com, edited by Louise Chang, 22 Dec. 2018, www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1.
- “How Nature Benefits Mental Health.” PathToMobility.com, pathtomobility.com/nature-benefits-mental-health/.
- Berry, Jennifer. “Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels.” MedicalNewsToday.com, edited by Alana Biggers, 6 Feb. 2018, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320839.php.
- “13 Reasons That Prove Viewing Nature Scenes Can Improve Your Health.” fotoviva.co.uk, 7 June 2020, www.fotoviva.co.uk/news/interior-design-tips/13-reasons-that-prove-viewing-nature-scenes-can-improve-your-health/.
- Henley, Jon. “Why our children need to get outside and engage with nature.” TheGuardian.com, 16 Aug. 2010, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/aug/16/childre-nature-outside-play-health.\
- Dewar, Gwen. “Outdoor learning and green time.” ParentingScience.com, www.parentingscience.com/outdoor- learning.html.
- Cohen, Danielle. “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature.” childmind.org, 2020, childmind.org/article/why-kids-need-to-spend-time-in-nature/.
- “Health Benefits and Tips.” nwf.org, www.nwf.org/en/Kids-and-Family/Connecting-Kids-and-Nature/Health-Benefits-and-Tips.
- “Climbing Trees is Good For You.” BowerAndBranch.com, www.bowerandbranch.com/climbing-trees-good/.
- Klass, Perri. “Writing Prescriptions to Play Outdoors.” nytimes.com, 16 July 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/07/16/well/writing-prescriptions-to-play-outdoors.html.
- Rosen, Lawrence. “7 SCIENCE-BACKED REASONS TO GET YOUR KIDS OUTSIDE.” Childrenandnature.org, 14 Oct. 2015, www.childrenandnature.org/2015/10/14/7-science-backed-reasons-to-get-your-kids-outside/.
- Cohen, Danielle. “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature.” childmind.org, childmind.org/article/why-kids-need-to-spend-time-in-nature/.
- Gray, Tonia. “Being in nature is good for learning, here’s how to get kids off screens and outside.” theconversation.com, 25 Oct. 2018, theconversation.com/being-in-nature-is-good-for-learning-heres-how-to-get-kids-off-screens-and-outside-104935.