The average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen! You read that right, 4 to 7 minutes A DAY!
This statement alone makes it easy to understand why so much research is being done on kids’ exposure to nature and its effect on both mental and physical health. This article summarizes some of that research along with other ways nature can help us thrive!
Reducing a child’s time outside and his/her connection to nature may be harmful both physically and mentally. A recent study from Aarhus University in Denmark published results of just how important green space is for the development of a child’s mental health. The study included over 1 million subjects ranging from 1985-2013. The takeaway - researchers found that growing up surrounded by nature as a child (ages 0-10) meant a 55 percent lower risk of developing mental health issues as adults. 55%! If this was a drug or pill it would be flying off the shelves! Nature is free and accessible to everyone, but as a society, we have forgotten the importance of a balanced relationship with our natural environment for human health and well-being.
One of the coolest things this study discovered is that it doesn’t matter if the time outside is spent in a public park, urban green space or in the deep woods - kids still get the same effect. That means it is accessible to EVERYONE. Also, the longer a kid spends living close to nature(beyond age 10), the more positive benefits nature has on their mental health. Here are a few numbers from the study; subjects who grew up near green space had a 52 percent lower risk of developing substance abuse disorders, including a 55 percent decrease in risk for alcohol abuse, a 40 percent lower risk of developing a neurotic, somatic or stress-related disorder. That is amazing!
The crazy thing that no one can explain is why nature has such positive effects on our bodies. If you are an avid nature lover, you get it and without a doubt know nature is a key element to happiness, but no-one can scientifically answer why. In some strange way that is kind of cool - the answer is in the unknown.
Besides improving kids mental health, nature also helps them in the following ways.
Confidence - There are seemingly endless ways kids can interact with outdoor environments. Think hiking trails, swimming lakes, paddling rivers, and ziplining. Letting your kids chose how they interact and treat nature gives them the power to control their own actions. Learning from their experiences and choices gives them more and more confidence in the future.
Responsibility - Interaction with nature can show a child just how fragile nature can be. Pick a flower and forgot to put it in water and an hour later the flower is wilted and ugly. Leave the flower alone and it will be beautiful for days to come. Cut a tree’s bark and you will see the scar for years to come. Over time children will learn that their actions affect their surroundings and thus will become more responsible and thoughtful.
Awaken The Senses - Staying inside narrows a child’s senses. Inside it is safe, familiar, and comfortable. This place of comfort results in less sensory stimulus and just like a muscle our senses will atrophy if not used. Think about it, when we’re inside our ears aren’t listen for the buzzing of a bee, we aren’t looking out for roots on the trail or feeling the cold water of a stream on our feet. But outside, we instinctively use all 5 senses - smell, feel, see, hear, and taste (hopefully only on yummy berries) to ensure we navigate our ever-changing surroundings. From that first job interview to managing a major project, this heightened sense of awareness helps us through all of life’s challenges.
Creativity - Unstructured outside play allows kids to get creative and interact meaningfully with their surroundings. Imagination can run wild - forts, castle, jungles, dragons, and unicorns - the possibilities are endless. Dream it and you can achieve it!
Reduces Stress - According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we practice an effortless type of attention known as 'soft fascination' that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue. This is the reason for going outside for a quick stroll or sitting next to the river feels so rejuvenating.
Sunburns, scrapes, bug bites, and dirty clothes - all seem like reasons to protect your child from the dangers of the outdoors, but it turns out keeping them inside - especially in front of a screen is the most damaging thing you can do for your child’s mental and physical health. So this summer get out there, make memories, have a family adventure, and explore all the amazing things you can do in and around the beautiful Green River Gorge!