Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.
As a child I grew up living next to a large forest. I remember saying good-bye to my mom in the morning. Without glancing back even once, I would run off to play in the woods along with my best friend who lived next door. We spent the days climbing trees, building dens and running wild till the sun started to set, before heading back home. I look back on those long summer Saturdays spent roaming the countryside nostalgically now. I realise they helped shape me, made me more confident and gave me a life-long love of nature that I often return to like a touchstone.
This feels like a far cry from the experience of today’s children. Kids are growing up indoors rather than outdoors. This change is undoubtedly motivated by technology. The compulsive pull of the computer screen has manged to take the place of outdoor play. In the UK alone, “fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half a generation ago” reports a Natural England survey. It’s not surprising, children face non-stop pixelated distractions like television screens, computer games, mobile apps and social media both at home and in other social settings.
What is the impact of this on our children’s health and development? Over the last twenty years, the average American child spends as little as only thirty minutes a day involved in unstructured outdoor play: a behaviour pattern that was unheard of 20 years ago. This generation spends on average seven hours watching a screen of some sort. Shockingly, children are spending less time outdoors than adult prisoners. In response, childhood obesity rates have doubled over the last two decades and there are other issues as well. America’s Center for Disease Control reports that 11% of four- to 17-year-olds in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD. Clearly, this issue needs attention, but how should we respond?
Parents are increasingly becoming more concerned by this trend or could it be called a crisis? Are we suffering from ‘Nature deficit disorder’? This ominous term was first coined by Richard Louv in his seminal book ‘Last Child in the Woods’. In it he argues that the lack of nature in the lives of today's generation is connected to the staggering rise in obesity, attention disorder, and depression in young people. He provocatively asks, “What would our lives be like if our nights and days were as immersed in nature as they are technology?”
What would our lives be like if our nights and days were as immersed in nature as they are technology?
The evidence indicates children are so removed from the natural world, they are more likely to be able to identify a minion rather than an eagle. But the question is, do children need to know the difference between a nettle leaf and an oak leaf? No, the important thing is less about knowing, rather, it is about experiencing nature that is beneficial to us. The awe of seeing a caterpillar weave a chrysalis, or hearing the roar of the ocean in a sea shell, are all magical and inspiring for children’s inquisitive minds. We all remember how we felt after spending time on a beach or in a forest; the sensation of sand between our toes or hearing the early morning song of birds. This maybe paints a bucolic ideal. However, when we experience nature, it undeniably makes us feel good. Why? There is something familiar about its simplicity that speaks to us at a basic level. It calms the mind and re-energises. That’s certainly how I feel after a foray in the woods.
There is mounting data that shows children who spend more time outdoors are happier and healthier than those who don’t. A study by the American Academy of Paediatrics found that just a small amount of unstructured play every day was crucial to the mental and physical health of children. Studies show that, as humans, we need a connection to nature. Not that we would like it, which may seem obvious, but that it is vital to our health and well-being. The ‘Biophilia hypothesis’, claims that all humans have an innate desire to have connection with nature. The Japanese have taken this one step further, with a regularly practiced eco-therapy called ‘Forest Bathing’, or ‘shinrin-yoku’ in Japanese. They recognise that standing amongst trees, and literally spending time in their presence can lead to many health benefits like lower heart rate, reduced stress hormone production and improved feelings of wellbeing. Amazingly, this has been part of the public health program in Japan since 1982. How we incorporate some of this thinking in own approach to teaching our children about the benefits of being outside?
If we are innately drawn to nature, could this mean there is a biological imperative at work? This is what Dr Maya Shetreat-Klein talks about in her book “Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child”. A paediatric neurologist and mother-of-three from New York, advocates a lifestyle centred around contact with the microbes present in soil. After her son developed severe allergies, she changed her families diet and routine. She says:
Microbes, fresh food from healthy soil, time spent in nature, can improve our children’s health immeasurably. No drug can do what being in the forest can
It’s clearly not just the aesthetic of being in scenic wild places that benefits us. Our bodies need to interact at a microbiological level with nature.
Let’s not forget that being outside is fun, and kids love adventure and new things. The natural environment, whether it is a park, a forest, a beach or a river, offers a unique opportunity to help build imagination, curiosity, compassion, and problem solving. It provides a space for experimental education. A chance to learn by doing and being able to fail. For instance, it’s useful to know that if you get stung by a nettle leaf, you can pick a healing dock leaf which always grow nearby. The benefits to children’s psychological and emotional well-being can be profound: from improved concentration, better vision, increased attention span, developed social skills and lower levels of depression. When we are outside, we are also exposed to more Vitamin D, which is important for proper development of our cognitive function and is mood stabilising. Through engaging in outdoor exploration, children start to learn about risk which helps build confidence. It helps them begin to understand that they are part of something much bigger, a larger universe and that all living things have a part to play.
It’s not just about the now, it’s about tomorrow too. Getting kids to connect with nature is important for future generations. In making sure that our children today learn to appreciate the environment and wildlife, they are more likely to want to protect and preserve it for their own children.
How can we have more outdoor time with our children? There are many fantastic ways to enjoy nature and to help kids get excited about it. Here are four great activities that you can do together as a family:
Hiking is one of the best, easiest and cheapest ways to get outside. It’s a great way to introduce children to nature and help them connect with the outdoors while they are still quite young. When children and adults spend most of the week indoors, getting out and hiking on the weekend is a great way to get some outdoor time. Hiking is great for kids as it appeals to their sense of adventure. Even though it’s easy to incorporate into a weekly routine, you need a couple of things in mind before you venture out. Remember it’s about the journey not the destination.
Keep it simple at first, don’t try to cross the Grand Canyon on your first try. If the kids want to stop and get down on their hand and knees to explore stones or the moss along your path, let them. Make sure you are packed correctly:
Another good tip is always to keep a set of spare clothes in the car for your return after the walk, as kids are guaranteed to always get wet and muddy. Don’t forget a map to know where you are going, and a safety whistle for each child.
The idea of camping with children can appear daunting. Stuck in a tent in a field with no WIFI, no television and no tablet might alarm a few kids, and adults too. Camping offers the best digital detox. It is a brilliant opportunity to spend quality time together as a family and create lasting memories. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NEF), camping increases imagination and cognitive focus, and leads to longer and healthier lives. If it’s your first time, camping requires a little thought and planning. Do a test run, maybe in your garden. Practice putting up your tent and sleeping in it. The kids will love the novelty. Once you’re ready to venture further afield, remember not to overpack; write a list to remind yourself of essentials you need to bring. Be sure to involve your kids at every step. Be prepared for emergencies. Don’t forget a torch.
For children, camping offers a great chance to learn lots of great new skills. For instance, how to put up a shelter, build a campfire and cook their own food. Being outside in nature means you are away from artificial city lights and are exposed more to the sun’s natural light. This allows for Vitamin D production in the body, which is important for many functions as it helps regulate our mood and sleep patterns.
What is fishing? A sport, a hobby, a profession, a skill? It is these and more. When standing on the dock, seconds away from reeling in a catch; fishing crosses all gender, culture and economic lines. There is a great sense of exhilaration as the line starts to pull and then pride in seeing the fish at end of the hook.
Learning to fish is a lifetime skill. The benefits for children are extensive. Captain Jeff Lomanaco says “fishing teaches values; mindfulness, individuality and self-reliance” Fishing also helps build confidence and can enhance motor planning. Learning to handle a fish improves coordination. It also encourages independence and an appreciation of nature.
It’s not all about the catch. Fishing can be a very slow activity and much patience is needed. Be supportive with your child, let them know it is fine to make mistakes. Go on a sunny, dry day as fishing in the rain isn’t much fun. For younger children, make sure you get appropriate equipment like a short pole. Use the time waiting for the catch to talk about different fish, the types of trees and plants, take a break and have a picnic. Keep it simple as the main thing is spending time bonding as a family and making it a fun activity that you will want to do again and again.
Nothing guarantees that your kids will forget about their apps more than a trip kayaking. It’s exhilarating fun for the whole family. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got no experience, as most guided trips include a beginner’s lesson. Even though it can be surprisingly easy to learn, there are some prerequisites: it is important that each family member can swim well, and everyone always wears a life vest.
It’s best to start with a double paddle for smaller children. Once they get bigger, they will want to use a single kayak which is much easier to maneuver. Kayaking is a great activity to do with children because you can paddle at your own pace whilst enjoying the landscape around you. You will get the chance to see many different marine animals depending where you are paddling, for instance dolphins, sea lions, turtles and fish.
There are also some benefits that are not so obvious. By being based in the water, kayaking provides a unique perspective that helps children see places and nature in a different way. By being low in the water. you can notice things that you might otherwise miss if you were just walking along the shore. Managing the kayak can also help develop physical awareness. Children can start to learn about marine ecology and conservation whilst also being introduced to creative problem-solving skills whilst under pressure, for instance dealing with dropping a paddle or navigating a strong current. Like many of the outdoor activities already listed, kayaking also educates children about risk, reward and persistence. Whereas computer games instil a culture of instant and immediate gratification, kayaking provides an antithesis to this. It teaches skills that will help children grow into adults that can meaningfully contribute to society.
There are many more activities that can be done with children that can help them enjoy the great outdoors. Other ideas can include visiting a farm, going horse riding or simply taking a picnic to the beach or the lake. All these activities provide a valuable opportunity to enjoy nature and learn from it. Whether it is naming a bug, creating a picture from beach stones or making a mud pie, children have a chance to explore their imagination. The great outdoors offers ample opportunity for growth and education. The benefits of play in wild spaces also gives kids a chance to see that there is another way of living. For instance, it helps them realise that there is life beyond the pixelated screen and that there is a lot of value in things other than money and possessions.
A child’s imagination is limitless. Give them the space and inspiration to use it and they will surprise you.