When we moved recently, one of the number one things I was looking for was an outdoor preschool for my son. Moving to the mountains of North Carolina did not disappoint and we are blessed that there are so many nature schools in our area. And we found a program that we love immensely, have a great community with, and will grow with us (the program goes all the way to 12th grade!!).
BUT, why do I want my children outside all day?
The benefits of nature exposure are rather well documented and the effect it has on children is even more profound and necessary. As I dive deeper into this topic I will share with you why nature is so important for:
- Healthy physical development
- Creating personal boundaries and setting limits
- Reduction of mental health disorders
- Appreciation for nature and natural environments
Obviously all of these things are not in silos, they interact and relate to each other greatly. Nature is both a calming and stimulating environment at the same time. Nothing depicts duality better than nature. And these are also benefits for adults!
Healthy physical development
Throughout human history, we evolved with nature. Our senses are in tune with nature, our bodies know how to interact with nature, our brains seek nature for a combination of calm and healthy stimulation. Unfortunately most of us have separated ourselves from nature and spend the majority of our time in the human built environment, indoors or on man-made outdoor structures. We rarely walk through the woods barefoot or traverse difficult natural terrains.
Our children are even more separated from nature as they spend the majority of their time indoors on screens, at school desks, or just playing on playgrounds that do not represent nature in any way.
The rise in children needing occupational therapy is one consequence of children not interacting with nature. Climbing, playing and touching in a natural environment stimulates brain development as well as physical development. Children are exposed to a larger variety of sensory experiences in an outdoor setting. They are required to use their bodies in ways that they would not otherwise move. Especially when children are allowed to be barefoot in nature they are taking in so much information through their feet as well as allowing their feet to grow and develop in a way that human evolution intended.
Create personal boundaries and set limits
As children explore nature they explore their own boundaries. What is safe and what is not safe, what is fun and what might hurt, what is easy and takes effort. When we allow children to play in nature they become more in tune with what their bodies are capable of and are better able to regulate their impulses through understanding their body movements. They are able to test their limits and see. They might pick up gradually larger sticks until they find something that is too heavy to pick up. They might try balancing or climbing something and realize that they miscalculated and can not actually do what they intended. If we do not give them opportunities to explore and test their limits they will continue to misjudge their own boundaries and over/under estimate what their physical limits are.
Reduction of mental health disorders
There have been many studies of the effects of nature on mental health. Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce anxiety, ADHD, and aggression in children. When children’s brains interact with the natural environment it creates a soothing effect. Nature is wonderful because it is both simultaneously soothing and engaging. This causes the brain to relax, use more parts of the brain, and absorb more information. As children spend more and more time in nature they get to experience the calming effect it has and the residual benefits last begin to last longer. It is recommended that at least 2 hours of nature immersion a week will have the calming effect we so look for.
Appreciation for nature and natural environments
Creating the next generation of environmentalists shouldn’t be that difficult, but if we want our children to understand and have a true appreciation for the earth they must experience it and this means getting to know and understand nature. MOST environmentalists have cited a specific attachment to nature or a place in nature. They might identify their passion as coming from an attachment to a place or important revelation that happened in nature. Exposure to nature is the first step. We must get them out there. Just sitting on the couch watching videos of endangered animals is not that compelling compared to searching for endangered frogs in a river or helping to repair a hiking trail.
Nature is so important to children and this can be seen from the rise in the number of nature preschools that have popped up over the past 10 years. But even with these programs it is important for children of all ages (and adults) to continue to interact with nature on a regular basis so that they too can receive the benefits.
It’s also never too late to expose yourself or your children to nature. Get out there and enjoy everything the world has to offer.
If you’re looking for more information on this topic, these are some of my favorite books:
- Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
- How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature
- The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative