This summer we were hit hard by wildfires. For weeks on end, our air quality was rated very unhealthy or hazardous, and we were trapped inside day after excruciatingly long day.
I always knew my son needed to be outside for a good portion of every day, and I know that I am a happy, healthier, more centered person when I prioritize spending time outdoors. Yet I didn’t really realize what a lack of nature would do to us until we experienced weeks on end of being indoors. Our moods were all over the place, we didn’t sleep well, we were cranky, and we (well, he) had no outlet for burning off energy.
This summer I was reminded that time outside, particularly in a natural setting, is absolutely critical to my physical, emotional, and mental health. The same is even more true for my six-year-old. As Dr. Scott Sampson, author of How to Raise a Wild Child explains, “It’s an indisputable scientific fact that we are deeply connected with nature.”
Here are three reasons why kids need time in nature.
Sensory issues are on the rise. The reality is that many children simply spend too much time in sterile indoor environments, and we’re seeing the effect of this. Their brains and bodies need exposure to new and novel sights, sounds, textures, and smells. Children need to learn their physical limits; they need room to move their bodies.
In nature kids can climb trees, splash through creeks, hike up mountains, and play in the mud. They’re exposed to a vast array of sensations, and the sensory input leads to more organization in balance, gross motor skills, and proprioception. As Angela Hanscom, occupational therapist and author of Balanced and Barefoot explains, “I view nature as the ultimate sensory experience for all children and a necessary form of prevention for sensory dysfunction.”
According to the CDC, 1 out of 7 U.S. children aged 2 to 8 years had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder between 2011 & 2012. There are a myriad of factors at play, but one thing is certain: we must view our children’s mental health through a holistic lens. 1 out of 7 children does not have an organic disorder. There are most certainly other factors at play, and medication is not a sufficient solution to the problem.
Getting our kids out in nature is a powerful protective factor for their mental health. Time spent in nature has been correlated with reduced symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, and depression. It also leads to an overall sense of well-being.
If you’ve ever spent a peaceful afternoon next to a lazy river or walked on a snowy path under a clear sky, you know that nature can instill a sense of joy, contentment, and awe in all of us. For thousands of years our ancestors have lived by the rhythms of nature, and it is only in very recent times that we’ve begun to extricate ourselves from the natural world. Our bodies, minds, and souls need nature, and exposing our children to the outside world makes them more resilient and more balanced.
The importance of play in childhood can’t be overstated, and it isn’t just crucial for small children. As the organization Play England explains, “…all children and young people need to play. The impulse is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being of individuals and communities.”
Free play is particularly beneficial for children. In free play, there is no ulterior motive, no adult agenda, and no educational goal. It is child-driven, and it’s play for play’s sake. That doesn’t mean it isn’t productive, however. Free play fosters creativity, promotes the learning of new social and emotional skills, and it is correlated with the development of executive functioning. Free play in nature takes it to another level.
Dr. Scott Sampson claims that children who engage in free play outdoors, “tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills…play in outdoor settings also exceeds indoor alternatives to fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development.”
Doesn’t this make sense? While children are certainly capable of engaging in creative play indoors, there are also more distractions, and there’s more potential for structure and rigidity. Inside there are ipads, games that are to be played in one specific way, and close-ended toys. In the woods, a stick can be a staff, a sword, a magic wand, a snake, or any number of other things. In essence children are compelled to play creatively in nature because there’s simply no alternative.
Spending time in nature with our kids has seemingly endless benefits for them (and us!), and the best part of all is that nature is inexpensive to access. Activities like hiking, picnics, and exploring local wild places are all easy, cost-effective ways to do something positive for our families.
- Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom
- How to Raise a Wild Child by Dr. Scott Sampson
- There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk
- The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
- The Nature Fix by Florence Williams