Research shows that when kids are allowed to play in nature without someone hovering over them yelling, “Be careful!” and “Get down from there!”, they flourish and grow in so many ways.
When you think back to the fondest memories of your childhood, do you remember the times you were closely supervised while playing on a plastic or metallic structure for an allotted amount of fresh air time, or do you remember the times when you were wading in a creek catching tadpoles and crayfish, digging in the dirt looking for treasures, building forts, playing imagination games with neighbors and siblings, and exploring the world with fresh eyes without being hovered over (as I was lucky enough to be able to do)?
We live in an era of fear which has led to a dangerous amount of helicopter parenting where kids are constantly hovered over and controlled. Kids need elements of risk and danger. It helps them to be better problem solvers. by overcoming small obstacles where the risks are real, they will be able to overcome larger obstacles later when the stakes are higher.
Yes, getting exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are important, but even more important is that kids need time to be free, to get dirty, to fall down and get back up again, to explore nature, to be in the woods, the dirt, the sand, to gather sticks, to build forts that don’t follow any directions, and to do so without us supervising their every move.
Below is a picture of my children playing on the stepping stumps at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, MI. They have an amazing natural playground, a little log cabin, trails that meander through the woods into wigwams and other structures, boardwalks that take you through the woods and showcase rescued animals, and much, much more. This is a great example of a place dedicated to providing children with opportunities for children to learn, explore, and play in nature.
Benefits of Kids in Nature
The Children and Nature Network, an organization dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, has an impressive collection of research showing the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature which is nicely summarized here. A part of me is like, do I really need to reference research to show how kids being in nature is beneficial? But since the research is right in line with what I have observed with my own children, I used it as a framework for my ideas. The following is a summary of the meta-analysis of research about the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature coupled with my observations as a parent of four children who love interacting with nature.
- Increases Observation and Creativity: Studies prove that being in nature increases both observation and creativity. I like giving my children magnifying glasses, a microscope, an insect viewer, and collection baskets to further their observation skills. I really enjoy sitting or lying with them in the grass and helping them to notice what is going on around them. I might ask, “Do you see that little ant walking in the grass? Where do you think he’s going? What sounds do you hear right now? Do you hear birds chirping? What color is the sky? Do you see any clouds? Do you see any shapes in the clouds? And so on…” I also like doing art projects that bring in the elements of nature that helps my children to see the beauty of nature.
- Encourages Imagination and Sense of Wonder: Research shows that when children have early experiences with nature, there is a positive correlation with their development of imagination and it gives them a sense of wonder. I love encouraging creative and imaginative play with my children, and never do I see their imaginations stretch further than when they are outdoors in nature. I remember during my 7 years as an elementary school teacher, I was always amazed when children didn’t know what to do with themselves at recess. I would love to see us do away with standard sets of playground equipment and instead erect elements that encourage creative and imaginative play like some little log cabins, stepping stones or stumps, meandering paths of natural foliage, or even something more wild like this revolutionary new playground!
- Builds Language Development and Collaboration Skills: Studies show that the increased imaginative and creative components that occur when children are in nature foster language development and collaborative skills, and that they also have more positive feelings about each other in doing so. What better way to learn than being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, running and playing with your friends and/or siblings in nature! I love watching my kids interact with each other in nature. The world is such a big place and by exploring many different elements of nature firsthand, they are learning about the world. When I was a classroom teacher, I loved using an “outdoor classroom”.
- Increases Skills in Multiple Domains: Research shows that when children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously. There is really no limit to what children can learn when they are out in nature. It gives any learning a sense of purpose, authenticity, and wonder. While I was teaching a unit on ecosystems during my classroom years, we took a weekly field trip to a local pond to observe, collect samples, and take notes about what we saw. This first hand learning experience was so powerful for the children. They loved the hike there, the open ended nature of the project, being in the elements, wading in the water, walking through the brambles, and really paying attention to their surroundings.
- Improves Physical Health: Studies show that children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. I mean, it goes without saying that kids will have improved physical health from playing outdoors, but we have to think one step beyond structured and monitored play on predefined playground structures to allow our children to explore the elements of nature, to get dirty, to have danger and risk, to stretch themselves, to be free, and to discover things we never could really plan for or create for them.
- Improves Mental Health: Research shows that being in nature helps children to deal with adversity and minimize stress. What’s amazing is that the more time they spend in nature, the greater the benefits. Researchers at the University of Illinois (Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan) discovered that children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) performed better on schoolwork after having contact with nature.
- Appropriate Risk Minimizes Accidents: Studies show that playgrounds where there are genuine risks actually have fewer accidents than traditional playgrounds. When children are given real risks and learn how to handle them, true life-long learning takes place. On the other hand, children who are given sanitized play places are less conscious of risks and actually have more accidents. It’s understandable that we don’t want our children to get hurt, but letting them get a few scrapes and bruises when they are little can actually prevent them from breaking bones…or worse as they get older.
Detriments of Kids Not Being in Nature
I feel like we all know that being outside is good. Getting fresh air and sunshine, being involved in physical activity, participating in the elements of nature…these are all things that promote good health. But beyond the positives, there are some negative things that happen when children are deprived of nature. By not being in nature, children are missing out on so much. Research shows that beyond just the negative health concerns from spending too much time indoors, children can also develop an unhealthy fear of nature.
- Fears of Nature: When children are exposed to frightening environmental issues when they are young without fully understanding and appreciating the elements of nature or understanding how these issues can be solved, it causes them to be anxious about nature and want to avoid it. Children fear things they don’t understand (Don’t we all?), and if they first learn about pollution, endangered animals, and overpopulation before getting a chance to freely explore nature and create positive memories in it, is it any wonder that they would just prefer to stay inside with their ipads?
- Fears of Injury: When parents are constantly hovering over their children and yelling, “Be careful! Watch out! Get down from there! Get away from that!” they may think that they sound like they’re being good protective parents, but they are not helping their children learn how to assess and deal with risk on their own at all. We were at Blandford Nature Center the other day, it had just rained, and my kids were enjoying splashing in the water, getting dirty, climbing on everything, and having a BLAST. Another family came along while we were there and the mom was constantly yelling, “Don’t get wet! Stay out of the water! Be careful! Get down from those stumps!” She quickly left with her brood in a huff…everyone was still perfectly clean. My kids on the other hand, were soaked, dirty, and sooooo happy. Personally, I would rather keep a spare bag of clothes in the car for each child and let them get dirty and have fun rather than thinking that staying clean is the ultimate reward of childhood.
- Negative Health Issues: When children do not get adequate exposure outdoors, it puts them at risk for vitamin D deficiency which is a risk factor for rickets, cardiovascular disease, cancer, or autoimmune conditions. A U.S. environmental health report showed that most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Dr. Dennis Ownby states that,
“Maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is that we live too clean a life.”
There are a few key pillars to my parenting philosophy such as feeding my children nutrient dense food, being a stay at home mom and completely devoted to their needs, teaching them about language, reading, and math from a young age, sustaining creative and imaginative play…and this, being in nature. I want my children to be completely comfortable being in nature. I want them to enjoy it, to crave it, to know what to do in it, to not be afraid of it, and to let it shape their brains during these early stages of development.
Check out more ideas for making your backyard a haven for young children here. You can see some of these ideas in the video below as we get ready for summer. Ideally, we’d be living on 40 acres of wilderness, but we are doing the best we can with our one acre tucked within city limits. )