When you were a child, did you spend a lot of time outdoors in nature? Did you pick wildflowers, play in mud puddles or skip rocks on a pond? Children seem almost inexplicably drawn to nature. With their curious eyes and explorative tendencies, nature and children fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.

Yet for many children in today’s world, such nature experiences are not part of their story. Due to a variety of historical and technological changes, today’s children are more disconnected from nature than most in recent history. This trend is concerning, especially since the benefits of nature are wide-reaching, especially for children. By helping our children get back into nature, we can not only support their development but foster an awareness and appreciation for the natural world.

The Decline of Nature Time

It’s perhaps not surprising that children today are, in general, less connected to nature than in generations past. The reasons for this trend are multifaceted but relate to issues with which most parents are familiar. In many societies, there has been a shift in recent years to more organized extracurricular activities such as sports or lessons for children rather than free play (that often occurs outdoors). In addition to this, the prevalence of various forms of online and digital media and entertainment for children also contributes to the decline in outdoor time. Recent studies illustrate this by showing a decline in outdoor time among children along with a corresponding increase in time spent on screen media such as computers, televisions, or smartphones. Other research shows a link between daily screen time and children’s lack of connectedness to nature, particularly among adolescents. Studies including data from a variety of countries across the globe reiterate this point. One study that included responses from 10 countries showed that 56% of children globally play outside for one hour or less each day. These trends led author Richard Louv to coin the term “nature deficit disorder” in 2005. Although the term is not meant to be a medical diagnosis, it brings awareness to the idea that humans, especially children, have an innate need for nature. 

The Benefits of Nature for Children

While many of us might think of time in nature as a nice “add-on” or compliment to children’s other activities, the research suggests that time in nature has real, concrete benefits for all individuals, but especially for children. Among these benefits, improved mental health emerges as one of the most robust. Children who spend time in nature tend to have better mental health, including improved Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms, lessened stress, an improved quality of life, and greater resilience.

Additionally, exposure to nature also seems to have a number of positive impacts on children’s learning. Being in nature or even having access to nature through plants or windows in classrooms has been linked to better attention in students. Time in nature also provides a way to relieve children’s stress, which can also improve learning. Children who participate in educational programs in nature tend to exhibit higher levels of engagement and motivation. Equally important, the level of motivation and engagement in school persists even after the students return indoors.

Time in nature, therefore, is not just a fun complementary activity to children’s “real” learning, but an essential and supportive element of childhood. The question for all of us, then, is how to incorporate nature experiences into our children’s lives on a more regular basis.

Benefits of Nature

Bringing Children Back to Nature

Many children do not need much prompting to explore the outdoors; they jump right in. However, if children have become accustomed to spending most of their time indoors, particularly using screen media, they might need a little enticement to get them started. These ideas can help even the most nature-hesitant child learn to enjoy and explore nature:

  • Collecting: Children often love collecting things ⏤ sports cards, toy figures, etc. Bring this love of collecting to the outdoors. Help children start a collection of bugs, rocks, plants, sticks, or other natural items. Encourage them to keep their treasures in a box that they can add to every time they go outside.
  • Plant a Garden (even a patio garden): Although not everyone has access to a big plot of land, even city-dwellers can start a small garden in pots on a patio or windowsill. Any exposure to live plants and the process of growing things can be very educational and interesting to children. The best part is that there is a real reward at the end ⏤ food, flowers, or herbs!
  • Hikes or Bike Rides (with an interesting destination): Some children might be reluctant to go on a longer hike or bike ride with you if they are not accustomed to it. However, if you plan the route so that there is an interesting destination at the end, it greatly increases the excitement. Look in your area for interesting landmarks like waterfalls, overlooks, rivers, lakes, or other points of interest. In large cities, perhaps a park or favorite sweet shop could be the fun destination at the end of a bike ride.
  • Let Them Get Dirty: Most children love to play in nature, including all the dirty, muddy aspects of the outdoors. Although we might not enjoy cleaning up the mess, allowing children to get dirty in nature can offer them many fun and hands-on activities to engage with the outdoors. Encourage children to play in puddles, dig in the dirt, or pick up bugs. These simple outings can supply many happy memories.
  • Use Technology to Motivate: Children who are used to being on screen media for many hours a day might need a little extra encouragement to get outdoors. One way to motivate them might be to include a bit of technology in your outdoor adventures. An activity like geocaching might be a great idea for them. Individuals can use smartphones or GPS trackers to find “caches” hidden in outdoor areas like trails, parks, or forests. The cache is usually a bag with a marker or other notes from other geocachers. It’s a fun adventure, and it helps children learn about navigation.
  • Don’t Give Up: Some children may be hesitant at first to explore nature and get their hands dirty. While it is helpful to hear children’s concerns, try not to let this initial hesitancy deter you from trying. Usually, once children get outdoors and start exploring and moving, they usually enjoy their time in nature. 

Although the pull of technology is a growing aspect of children’s lives, the need for nature still exists. By encouraging children to experience the outdoors on a regular basis, they can not only reap the benefits of nature but learn to appreciate and respect the natural world.

Preview Blurb: Do the children in your life have a nature deficit? In our high-tech world, with its emphasis on digital media and electronic devices, it can be challenging to get children outdoors to enjoy nature. However, the benefits of nature for children are abundant and varied. Discover creative ways to get children outdoors and encourage them to appreciate nature in all its forms.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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