The Outdoor Dilemma

In my professional career, I have spent my time focused on two main areas. Children and nature. As an early years educator and environmental enthusiast, I have always searched out ways to connect the two. Planting a new tree with a class of Kindergarten students. Helping elementary schools in remote Mayan villages plant community, organic gardens. Taking classes on nature walks and field trips to local greenhouses and parks. Each time I involve children with nature, their enjoyment, wonder, and imaginations are clearly engaged. I have found that it doesn’t take a lot to convince a child to become excited about the outdoors, to get dirty in the name of nature. 

My personal experiences have shown me that children not only want, but need to spend time outdoors. However, studies show that children in North America only spend an average of 4-7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day. In fact, the term Nature Deficit Disorder has been coined to describe just how little time children spend in the great outdoors. In the last two decades, it would seem that children have moved indoors, changing the way that they play. Scientists fear that through this loss of regular contact we may find ourselves with future populations of biophobic adults. Individuals who have very little interest in preserving nature and it’s diversity. A somewhat disturbing idea when thinking about our next generation of stewards for the Earth. 

So why is it important that we encourage our children to get outside? A myriad of reasons that seem almost common sense to those with a personal love of nature. With child obesity rates doubling in the last twenty years, we need to encourage children to get their daily exercise in a natural way.  While playing outside, children develop muscle strength, coordination, flexibility, as well as fine and gross motor development.  They use their whole body to explore their environments, which helps to increase their perceptual abilities.  Smelling flowers or feeling the grass underfoot provides much more input than what a computer or television can offer, which limit the use of young senses.  Children who spend their time outside develop stronger immune systems, the increased levels of Vitamin D helping their bodies grow strong and ward off illness. 

Not only is being outdoors better for their bodies, but fresh air is good for their brains. With a generation of stressed-out kids (soaring new levels of pediatric prescriptions for anti-depressants), nature has the ability to reduce anxiety and improve the mood. Studies have shown that children who suffer from ADHD are much better able to concentrate after contact with nature. Even in adults, stress levels decrease significantly with the sight of green space (the more the better!). Outdoor play has been shown to enhance imaginative and creative play as well as promote problem solving and leadership skills. It fosters language and collaborative skills and gives children opportunities to meet and make new friends. It allows for the development of independence and autonomy, and teaches children to learn how to better assess risk. Students who attend schools with environmental education are proven to have better test scores and show more developed reasoning skills. 

A love of nature is an important supporting factor in helping children develop environmental ethics.  So how do we get children outside, especially when parents are overwhelmed with their number one concern, safety? Parents need to act as models for their children, taking them to explore parks, creeks, ponds, and trails.  Teaching children to be “watchful” as opposed to “careful” can go a long way in educating them how to recognize and deal with danger as opposed to being scared of it. The best way to make local neighborhoods safer is to be active in your own community, walking or cycling the area often. Get to know your neighbors too, they will help keep an eye on your children and watch out for them when you may not be around. Another idea is to buddy up with another family, taking turns in bringing the children to green spaces and playgrounds. Making your backyard fun and friendly with small natural spaces for your children to take ownership of will also help encourage kids to choose outdoors instead of in. This spring, as you plant your beds, consider giving a small plot to your children. Letting them choose what seeds they want and having the job of taking care of it will help teach responsibility and the love for growing things. Get outside and get active, a goal that will make your whole family healthier. 

Looking for other ways to show your children how to appreciate nature? Volunteer with Fruit Share at www.fruitshare.ca and do a favor to your family and community. 

I’d say this little dino is having fun in the great outdoors!
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