I am a big advocate for getting kids outdoors and in tune with nature! I am currently working on a new section of my blog, Nature Babies, which will provide lists of outdoor activities, games and places to visit with children. But in this post, I wanted to explain some of the reasons behind why nature is so beneficial for kids.
The benefits of interaction with nature isn’t a new phenomenon. For centuries people have recognised the importance of spending time outdoors – in the Romantic era, poets such as William Wordsworth wrote about the disappearance of British countryside throughout the Industrial Revolution and despaired. Today, we simply have more scientific proof to support the growing nature movement.
In August 2010, a survey of 2,000 children aged 8-12 years was carried out by the TV channel Eden, as part of a project to re-engage children with nature. According to many of these kids, cows hibernate in winter, the earth is still, conkers come from oak (or is it beech, or maybe ash?), grey squirrels are native to England and trees don’t produce oxygen. Interesting. Worrying?
But if I, like 73% of British children, spent more time watching TV than playing outside, or was one of the 21% who’d never been to a farm, the 20% who’d never climbed a tree, or the 28% who haven’t been on a country walk in the last 12 months, I probably wouldn’t know much about nature either. So can we blame them?
Earlier this year, The Dirt is Good campaign, sponsored by Persil (in the UK) and Omo (in other countries), surveyed 12000 parents in 10 countries. The most startling finding was that the average child spends less time outside than the average high security prisoner. So that means that in the UK, nearly three-quarters of children spend less than one hour outside each day. It’s no surprise they think cows hibernate.
And is it even important that children know about nature? Do they need to understand that trees produce oxygen, and that cows don’t hibernate? One of my favourite quotes from Sir David Attenborough says:
“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
If kids don’t experience nature, they certainly won’t conserve it. The future of our natural world depends on the next generation, so we have to at least give them the chance to see and understand it.
More importantly, there is a growing body of scientific evidence which indicates that actually being in nature, alone, without grownups, has huge benefits to child development.
The disconnect with nature that we see in so many children today has been coined ‘nature-deficit disorder’ by Richard Louv, author of
Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle and Vitamin N. He explains that over the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift in our children’s relationships with nature for a number of reasons.
Firstly, technology. 73% of British children now spend more time watching TV than playing outside. But isn’t sticking on a nature documentary beneficial? Can’t they just learn that way? Stephen Moss, naturalist, broadcaster and author, explains that “more kids today are interested in the natural world than ever before; they watch it on the telly…but far fewer are experiencing it directly, on their own or with their friends, and that’s what counts: this is about more than nature.”
Another issue is that we want children to spend their free time constructively. After-school clubs, sports clubs, brownies, cubs – all of which are great, but they don’t allow kids to be free and explore the outdoors naturally.
The third issue, identified by Sir Ken Robinson, an educationalist known for his work on creativity in schools, is that in cities, there has been a decline in outdoor spaces to play. In a recent interview he explained that “the vast majority of children now live in cities…we are cramming much more people into cities…and public spaces are important and in some cases these have been neglected or are in decline.”
Finally, the biggest obstacle to letting kids run free outdoors is parental anxiety and perceived danger. Danger of traffic. Danger of injury. Stranger danger. Although the likelihood of a child being killed by a stranger in Britain is literally one in a million, intense coverage by the media on the few incidences has understandably sparked fear in parents. When I was little, we used to play out for hours on end. I spent most of my childhood running around my garden (or other peoples gardens), or on holidays to Cornwall we’d go on long cliff walks and play in the sea. I never felt restrained, it was totally free.
It was those experiences that sparked my love for biology, nature and conservation. An interest that lead me to study biology at university, and to be writing this blog today.
On the website childrenandnature.org and in his book, Vitamin N, Richard Louv lists a number of scientific studies identifying the benefits of nature on health and child development.
He explains that “the evidence indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits. Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, simulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardised test scores.” Pediatric professionals across America are now actually prescribing vitamin N (N for nature) and time spent outdoors for the families they work with. Is there anything nature can’t do?!
It seems to be a win-win situation – we will spend less on health care, our children will be smarter, happier and healthier, and our environment will be protected in the future. It’s no wonder the nature schools craze has exploded in recent years – everyone is fighting for their dose of vitamin N!
In 2008, a project in Somerset set the ball rolling and paved the way for a future where children can play outdoors. The Somerset Play and Participation Service, run by Barnardo’s children charity and natural environment agencies, launched a website listing over 30 sites across the county where kids can safely play outdoors unsupervised. Kristen Lambert who runs the scheme’s PlayRanger service, explains, “there are no specific activities, no fixed equipment; there are tree branches and muddy slopes. The spaces themselves are inspiring. Children set their own challenges, assess their own risks, take their own responsibility, have their own adventures, and learn from them. And what they learn can’t be taught. You should see them.”
I have found two fantastic sites which .will help you locate safe, green open spaces for your children to play – perfect!
Firstly, the Parks and Open Spaces site has many fantastic nature based activity ideas for you to do with your kids. It also links you to the Gov.uk website where you can enter your postcode and it will give you a list of your local parks and green spaces – simples!
My second fab find is the Wild Network site – it’s a must see! It has a ‘wildtime ideas’ page listing activities you can do which are categorised by the time they take (ideal!).
The ‘Sciencey Bit‘:
On the research library section of childrenandnature.org, they give brilliant summaries to key studies indicationg the benefits of nature for children. Here I have listed the citations to some of the best, more recent studies in case you want to read the full study:
- Howell, R.A., Allen, S., (2016). Significant life experiences, motivations and values of climate change educators. Environmental Education Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2016.1158242
- Izenstark, D, Oswald, R.F., Holman, E.G., Mendez, S.N., Greder, K.A., (2016). Rural, low-income mothers’ use of family-based nature activities to promote family health. Journal of Leisure Research, 48(12), 134-155.http://dx.doi.org/10.18666/JLR-2016-V48-I2-6409
- Li, D., Sullivan, W.C., (2016). Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landscape and Urban Planning, 148, 149-158. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.12.015
- Wells, N.M., Myers, B.M., Todd, L.E., Barale, K., Gaolach, B., Ferenz, G., Aitken, M., Henderson, C.R., Tse, C., Pattison, K.O., Taylor, C., Connerly, L., Carson, J.B., Gensemer, A.Z., Franz, N.K., (2015). The effects of school gardens on children’s science knowledge: A randomized controlled trial of low-income elementary schools. International Journal of Science Education, 37(17), 2858-2878. http://dx.doi.org/http://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2015.1112048
- Randler, C., Kummer, B., Wilhelm, C., (2012). Adolescent learning in the zoo: Embedding a non-formal learning environment to teach formal aspects of vertebrate biology. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(3), 384 – 391. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10956-011-9331-2
- Schein, D., (2014). Nature’s role in children’s spiritual development. Children, Youth and Environments, 24(2), 78-101. http://dx.doi.org/http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.24.2.0078
- Zamani, Z., (2016). ‘The woods is a more free space for children to be creative; their imagination kind of sparks out there’: exploring young children’s cognitive play opportunities in natural, manufactured and mixed outdoor preschool zones. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 16(2), 172-189. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2015.1122538
- Scott, G., Colquhoun, D., (2013). Changing spaces, changing relationships: The positive impact of learning out of doors. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 17(1), 47 – 53.
- Maynard, T., Waters, J., Clement, C., (2013). Child-initiated learning, the outdoor environment and the underachieving child. Early Years, 33(3), 212 – 225. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09575146.2013.771152
- Fagerstam, E., Blom, J., (2013). Learning biology and mathematics outdoors: Effects and attitudes in a Swedish high school context. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 13(1), 56 – 75. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2011.647432
- Hordyk, S. R., Dulude, M., Shem, M., (2015). When nature nurtures children: Nature as a containing and holding space. Children’s Geographies, 13(5), 571-588. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2014.923814
- Roe, J., Aspinall, P., (2011). The restorative outcomes of forest school and conventional school in young people with good and poor behaviour. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 10(3), 205-212. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2011.03.003
- Chawla, L., (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), 433-452. http://dx.doi.org/http://doi.org/10.1177/0885412215595441
- Harris, K.I., (2016). Let’s play at the park! Family pathways promoting spiritual resources to inspire nature, pretend play, storytelling, intergenerational play and celebrations.. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1364436X.2016.1164669