I think we all instinctively want contact with nature – a room with a view, a picnic under a tree or to feel our bare feet in the sand.
Yet today’s lifestyle sees us living removed from nature, shut inside our cars, our homes or in big shopping centres. In these indoor spaces our senses are restricted and our experiences blunted – this is especially sad for our children as they are missing out on the health benefits and fun offered by the outdoors.
There is now an expanding body of research which links time out in nature to better health and childhood development and yet few parents are aware of this.
Here are several ways to sprinkle our lives with as many different nature experiences as we can.
How to get more nature into your child’s day
Inside the home
Studies have shown that simply having a view of nature from a hospital bed improves a patient’s recovery time, reduces the amount of medication they need and sees them being discharged home sooner. These measures provide distraction and fascination for those visiting the hospital.
- Try to orientate kids’ bedrooms and play spaces so they have a view of the garden or sky, posters of natural scenes or animals on the walls and indoor plants, fish tanks or ‘nature trays’ throughout the house.
- Encourage children to bring natural things like leaves, seeds or shells inside to put on their nature tray – this is a simple and inexpensive way to bring nature inside.
- Indoor plants have the added bonus of removing impurities from the inside air and increasing the humidity in a room as natural ‘air fresheners’ and this is great for children with lung problems.
The great outdoors
Getting kids outside has enormous health benefits as well as being an inexpensive way to enhance their development.
- When children play outside in nature they improve their motor skills, balance and co-ordination as well as strengthening their muscles and bones. They can do this by climbing over natural, uneven surfaces or perhaps up into trees.
- Outside, children’s eyes are constantly moving from looking up close to into the distance and this exercises their eye muscles, which reduces the chances they will need glasses (as opposed to looking at a fixed distance when playing computer games). Take your kids outside and lie on the grass looking for all the tiny creatures in their grass jungle and then look up into the sky to find shapes in the clouds.
- Careful sun exposure also ensures they will achieve healthy levels of vitamin D, which is essential for bone, teeth and muscle development.
- The variety of sounds, sights and textures found in different outdoor settings provides opportunities for all senses to be used together and, with the unpredictability that comes from being outside, encourages creative play, exploration and problem solving.
- Providing children with opportunities to play without direct adult supervision in outdoor, nature-based activities allows for independent adventure and risk-taking. This helps children develop a sense of self-determination and confidence in their bodies, which grows resilience.
- Researchers in the USA have found symptom improvements in children with ADHD after a 20 minute guided walk in a green outdoor space as opposed to the same amount of time spent in other settings. In Australia, research has shown that the more nature-rich a school’s grounds are, the more restored their student’s attention is when they return to class after playtime. This suggests that nature time can be part of the management of children who have difficulty regulating their focus and is probably beneficial to all children. Support your child’s school or kinder to have as much garden and natural play space as possible.
- Time in nature helps mental health too by reducing stress and anxiety symptoms and lifting mood. So finding some time to relax under a tree in the garden or local park is beneficial not only for our kids but for all of us juggling the challenges of parenting.
I think it’s helpful to try to think of ways to fit in a ‘green hour’ each day – just as we aim for a healthy amount of sleep for our children each day.
Good luck and may the force of nature be with you!