by Molly Gerrish
Today’s youth are becoming increasingly disconnected to nature and the myriad of health benefits it can offer. With our technology focused world and overscheduled calendars, children are becoming more in tune to a screen than to the world around them. On average, American children ages 2-5 spend over 32 hours or more per week watching TV, as well as using other screen time (such as game systems and computers). There have been numerous studies that keep reiterating that when children spend time in nature, it can reduce stress as well as symptoms of ADD in children as young as age 5. Some other interesting statistics to make note of:
- Children aged 3-12 years spend 1% of their time outdoors and 27% of their time with electronic media.
- 29% of 2 and 3 year olds have a TV in their bedroom
- Children are 6 times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike.
- There is a link between lack of unstructured outdoor time and obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression.
The way children feel about the world around them is greatly influenced by the adults in their lives. Adults who are not particularly connected to nature themselves typically do not make it a priority to spend time outside with children in unstructured activities, such as climbing, hiking/walking, exploring, or simply taking the time to observe. Nature is a crucial part of childhood and beyond and provides numerous health benefits that cannot be replicated solely by enrolling children in organized sports. True, organized sports offer children a chance to exercise, learn new skills and be social, however, there is little time for children to simply explore, make interesting observations, or try out ideas on their own when the only time they spend outside is structured or on structured playground equipment. Most injuries that occur outside actually happen on playground equipment and not on natural terrains, which can be a fear of teachers and parents alike. Helping parents and children to “unlearn fear” and instead pay attention to their surroundings is a lifelong skill that can be carried well beyond childhood.
Social/emotional and mental health is also enhanced when children spend time outdoors. Children who are exposed to nature and natural elements learn a greater sense of empathy and responsibility for other living things. Children involved in caring for a garden, or even a simple potted plant learn that it takes patience and care for things to thrive. Spending time outdoors helps children and adults experience and develop respect for the diversity of other life forms in our world and learn to take risks, hypothesize, experiment and try, try again. We want and need to inspire children to care for their world and being outside, immersed in that world is the best way for children to take ownership of the land and to become true stewards of it. It is hard to care for something we do not love. When given the opportunity, children can become competent, responsible, caring members of our global community.
Offering children an opportunity to be engaged in activities outdoors can help reduce an inactive lifestyle, get children moving more and watching screens less, making decisions and trying them out, problem solving, and learning about themselves, others, and the larger world. Children are able to move their bodies in different ways than when indoors or only on structured play equipment. Think of the different balance and coordination it takes to navigate a hill, a slippery path, or a wiggly log. Children who are challenged appropriately outdoors more often than not rise to that challenge and gain self-awareness and improved self-esteem. The many health benefits that being outside offers is just one of the reasons to get children outside, get them moving, and get them exploring!
- Bailie, P. (2007)“List of ten reasons to connect children with nature”, Seeds of Learning Conference, River Falls, WI.
- Cornell, J. (1989). Sharing nature with children II. , Dawn Publications, Nevada City, CA.
- Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, Omaha, Nebraska www.greenhearts.org
- Kaiser Family Foundation (2005), USA Today, July 12, 2005
- Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing Co., New York, NY.
Molly Gerrish is an Assistant Professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Ms. Gerrish is currently ABD and completing her PhD in early childhood education with a focus on nature education and reflective practice in educating young children. Molly had presented on this topic at the local, regional, state, and national level and has been nationally published in the NAEYC journal Teaching Young Children. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org