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At Home in Nature

Kids on bridge in woods

Taken from the March/April 2017 Coop Scoop Magazine

Ecopsychology is the relationship between human beings and the natural world viewed through the lenses of ecological and psychological principles. Richard Louv (2006) wrote an inspiring book, “Last Child in the Woods” about how being in nature benefits children. Raising kids from a whole-child perspective is important for healthy development of their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves. To that end, nature is an essential resource.

“Playtime—especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play—is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development” (Louv, 2006). Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Angela Hanscom says, “Children need to move in all kinds of ways to develop a strong vestibular system.” (This is why we so often see them fidget in their desks!) The vestibular system, the sensory system associated with the sense of balance and spatial orientation, is an essential foundation for learning. Rolling and tumbling, climbing trees, going upside down on the monkey bars, spinning round-and-around, are all necessary for a child’s optimal development. When grown-ups or the environment restrict these types of activities, they can have unintended consequences such as poor motor skills and poor body-spatial awareness. In addition, getting kids outside to run around and blow off steam has very positive effects on behavior and mood regulation.
The importance of exercise for good health has been documented over the years, and a wealth of research supports the notion that children need physical exercise for countless health and developmental benefits. According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, eight studies explored the relationship between academic performance and physical exercise(activity during recess during the school day in elementary schools). All eight studies found one or more positive associations between recess and indicators of cognitive skills, attitudes, and academic behavior; none of the studies found negative associations.

Many studies link exercise and structured classroom achievements, but unstructured outdoor play provides additional important benefits. Relevant to physical health, spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping to protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues (AAP, 2009). And according to research conducted by Jones et al. (2007) it is believed that nearsightedness is linked to excessive time spent indoors. The eyes evolved to take in broad landscapes and therefore benefit from going outdoors where they can scan and focus on wide open spaces. Moreover, there is good evidence that when kids play in the dirt, that is, have direct contact with soil, the immune, cardiovascular and neurological systems, and even the skin, all benefit from exposure to beneficial microbes in the soil (National Wildlife Federation, 2012).

Research conducted by Kuo & Taylor (2004) show that children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces and speaks to the importance of how outdoor play contributes to children’s emotional development (Ginsgberg, 2007). In fact, it has been shown that children who are exposed to nature receive mental/emotional benefits, as it may be “widely effective” in reducing attention deficit symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Wells, 2000).

The natural world can be a child’s playground but the emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be ignored. When children are hurried from one scheduled activity to another, creativity and freedom are lost. This excessive demand on our children can cost more than we think. Anxiety and depression have been linked to a loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle (Ginsburg, 2007). When your child develops a relationship with the natural world, they can feel a sense of home, and it can become their go-to for peace. Giving kids the opportunity to simply be quiet among the trees and listen to their surroundings ignites curiosity and has a calming effect.

For most of us, this comes as no surprise. We know that fresh air and exercise are good for us and our kids, but the added benefits of playing in greenspace addresses children’s multidimensional complexities, which are sometimes overlooked.
When going outside to play, very little is needed. The natural environment itself provides everything children need for learning and entertainment. Squishing mud through your fingers, watching a line of ants carrying crumbs away from your picnic or birds at a feeder, lying in the grass and feeling it tickle your skin while looking at cloud formations—these experiences are all given to us by Mother Nature—no batteries, instructions, or rules required.

In a child’s younger years, get out of their way and encourage them to explore. Let them touch frogs. Let them taste dirt. Let them climb trees. Allow your child to fall in love with nature. For toddlers, there’s no better way to get them excited about outdoor play than to simply let them go at it whole-hog. Toddlers learn by doing. Playing in sandboxes, making mud pies, catching and releasing crayfish, splashing in puddles, building snow sculptures, and rolling down hills are all activities that appeal to toddlers because they engage all the senses and allow for freedom of movement. Such activities are optimal to the development of a young child’s mind and body. 

For children in early adolescence, it is important to keep up with outdoor play. Activities such as climbing trees, swinging and spinning on playground equipment, balancing across logs, and chasing a ball down the field build a strong and healthy vestibular system. As kids get older, it may be necessary to introduce tools, games, and toys to their outdoor adventures. Keeping it simple is best. Providing a shovel to dig or affixing a basket on their bicycles are easy ways to extend their outdoor games. Older kids can be kept engaged with the outdoors in many ways. If children have grown up playing outdoors and enjoying nature, there is a great chance they are going to care about the environment and want to protect it. Introducing children to environmental stewardship is one way to do this. Joining a local chapter of an environmental non-profit, such as Sierra Club, as one way to get involved. Older children can also be challenged more physically with experiences in rugged wilderness. Hiking and rock climbing appeal to thrill-seeking adolescents. If you are inexperienced with such activities, do not take them by yourself; join a club or use a guide to safely execute a family adventure. For the calmer nature lovers, gardening can be a great outdoor activity. With the popularity of community gardens and container gardening, space does not have to be a limiting factor in growing your own plants. Experiment with a few pots, soil, and seeds. It does not have to be more complicated than that.

kids sitting on log in woods

Nature has so much to offer our kids. As they grow, be a nature mentor for your child and play with them outdoors. Find your favorite hike and explore a special fort among the trees or enjoy the natural greenspaces in your city or town. Take them camping. Grow a garden. Watch birds. Have a picnic in a city park. Allowing children to simply experience the pleasures and sensations provided by the natural environment is the best way to create a connection to nature that will last a lifetime.

Earth Day (April 22) is the perfect day to take a hike and talk to your kids about nature and their place within it. As the weather warms and the trees invite blossoms, wiggle your toes in the grass and find home with your child.

Tara Herrick Brown, M.S. owns INUR Wellness in Delmar. She has a master’s degree in health psychology and passions for natural health and ecopsychology. For more information, visit www.inur.com.

Julia Cadieux, M.Ed. and certified parent coach lives in Delmar with her family. She is owner of The Supported Parent & believes that play, creativity, and a connection to nature are necessities of life. You can reach her at julia@thesupportedparent.com.

References  American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Many Children have suboptimal Vitamin D Levels,” Pediatrics. October 26, 2009. http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/oct2609studies.htm   |   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “The association between school based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance.” Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.   |   Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, Kenneth R., Committee on Communications, and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” 119.1 (2007). American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 2007.   |   Jones, L. A. et al. “Parental History of Myopia, Sports and Outdoor Activities, and Future Myopia.” Investigative Ophthalmoloy & Visual Science, 48(8), 3524–3532. Aug. 2007.   |   Kuo, PhD, Frances E., and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD. “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a National Study.” American Journal of Public Health 94.9. Sept. 2004.   |   Louv, Richard. 2006. Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.   |   National Wildlife Federation report, “The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids”, 2012.   |   Wells, N.M. (2000). At Home with Nature: Effects of “greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior (32), 6, pp 775-795. http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/6/775 16

 

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