Help Your Kids Plug into the Natural World

Many of us have memories of playing outside as children—my brother and I loved an old oak tree near our house. The large limbs bent down to the ground; we would scoot through the leaves to the secret interior where we could be whoever we wanted. The tree was at various times a house, a jungle, a fort, a secret parent-proof hideaway and a space ship. I don’t know why, but Scott and I never seemed to bicker inside those tree limbs.

As we climbed on the branches or picked through the leaf litter for bugs, we were participating in what is now called “unstructured play”. Studies show that by interacting with the natural world we were lowering our stress levels, increasing our imaginations, becoming fitter and leaner, developing stronger immune systems, less likely to experience the symptoms of ADD or ADHD and gaining a greater respect for ourselves, others and the environment. Plus, we were out of our mom’s hair for a few hours.

Those are a lot of benefits to come from pretending a tree is a fort, but more and more scientists, doctors and parents are learning that contact with nature is needed for the development of a healthy child (and for healthy adults, for that matter). Today’s children are often “plugged in” to computers, televisions, video games and other media—and unplugged from the natural world.

In Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, he coins the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe this child-nature disconnect. He writes, “Increasingly nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore.” Today’s kids are more globally linked—they can talk with authority about the Amazonian rainforest and melting polar ice caps—and less locally linked—many local kids have never seen Yellowstone National Park.

Why aren’t kids playing outside the way they did when their parents were younger? “I think a lot of it has to do with families being downright busy,” says Jamie Saitta, Recreation Program Manager for the City of Bozeman. “A lot of families are working families and they have little time to get out and be active,” she adds.

Even if parents do have the time, “they may not have the skills to get outside,” adds Saitta. But, backpacking, canoeing or rock climbing expertise isn’t required to send a child into the back yard or to the park to play. All that is needed is open space and imagination.

Another reason kids may spend more time indoors is that parents aren’t comfortable sending their children out into the world alone, even if it’s just down the street. A mother playing with her kids at Sacajawea Park in Livingston commented to me, “The world is scary today; I would never let my kids go somewhere without an adult. They don’t even walk to school anymore; I drive them.”

While parents may feel safer with their child in front of the computer rather than running around at the park unattended, or walking to school alone, studies show it just isn’t healthy. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that the average American child spends 44 hours per week (more than 6 hours a day—more than a typical workweek!) staring at some kind of electronic screen.

Not only are kids spending more time plugged in at home, they are spending less time in outdoor recess in order to use that time to prepare for mandatory testing instead. Saitta notes, “With childhood obesity rates still skyrocketing it’s important to get kids bought in to playing outside while they are still young.”

A special report in the New England Journal of Medicine states that after years of life expectancy increasing for Americans, it may now be on the decline due to obesity. But obesity isn’t the only situation that could be improved with an increase in the exposure to nature.

Louv writes, “children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore for learning and creativity.” The plugged in world only engages two senses—sight and hearing—leaving out touch, smell and taste. Nature is a three dimensional world, filled with sights, sounds, smells, textures and for the careful explorer—taste.

“Kids need direct experiences such as playing in the dirt, looking under rocks or collecting macroinvertebrates,” notes Montana Outdoor Science School Director of Education, Krista Wright. “The indirect learning experiences they get from computers may have some benefits, but being outside and connecting with the natural world leads to so many more,” Wright adds.

Nature doesn’t have to mean “wilderness”. Direct experiences can be had in a corner of the backyard, at the creek in Bogert Park or the sage and wildflower slopes on Peets Hill. As long as children are playing outside—without parents watching their every move and dictating their play—they are gaining the benefits of connecting with nature.

Parents want to improve the quality of life for their children. They want their kids to have more than they had, but sometimes giving more—more computer time, more structured “learning experiences”, more Blue’s Clues—means less time building dams in a creek or stringing flowers into a wreath. All these experiences are necessary for healthy kids, who will become healthy adults. Playing pirate in an oak tree can lead to creativity, inquisitiveness and better health. And in this rich natural environment that is southwest Montana, parents have the opportunity to ensure their children are exposed to unfettered free-time outside in natural places.

Montana Parent

June 04, 2007

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