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Help your child flourish through time in nature

outdoor playWhat is your fondest childhood memory?

In my developmental psychology class, I ask students about their favourite childhood memory. Each year, the same themes emerge — adventures in the natural world, free play, a sense of freedom, and time with loved ones.

Yet, when we look at the children of today, their lives have changed substantially from the outdoor upbringing many of us experienced and hold so dear.

As you travel within your neighbourhood do you ever find yourself asking, where are the children?

Children today are spending more time indoors than ever before, moving less, and increasingly experiencing our world digitally. This rapid change is having significant impacts on how they learn and grow.

Help your child flourish through time in nature

Why outdoor play matters

As childhood has moved indoors, children’s physical activity levels have decreased. Most Australian children don’t reach the minimum recommended level of physical activity every day. Not only does this loss of movement increase risk for obesity, it has also led to bodies that are less prepared for learning than ever before.

Less time being active outdoors is impacting children’s strength, endurance, postural control, balance and sensory integration. Rates of myopia (or short-sightedness) are increasing and our immune systems are not being exposed to natural organisms in soil, which make us more able to fight disease.

Furthermore, parents and educators are reporting increased difficulties for children to pay attention and regulate their emotions, while rates of childhood anxiety, depression and ADHD diagnoses continue to rise. To combat these issues, we need to return to our roots.

Children flourish in nature

Have you ever had the experience of being at home with your children who are bored or bickering with siblings only to get outside and notice the way the energy shifts and calm and contentment emerge?

As a mum and Director of TimberNook SA (a nature-based program for children), I have regularly experienced the transformative role of time in nature for children. Studies tell us there are many ways in which being outdoors boosts children’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

In open spaces, we naturally move more, stimulate our senses, and challenge our bodies in important ways as we traverse uneven terrain, balance on fallen logs, or even climb trees. This increases our activity and provides the motor and sensory experiences that prepare our bodies to learn and to successfully navigate our world.

All physical activity is good but being outdoors has particular benefits. Research has demonstrated natural environments help to lower stress, evoke a feeling of calm, and restore our ability to pay attention.

Furthermore, time in nature supports the development of children’s resilience. One of the things I love most about spending time outdoors with children are the endless and graduated challenges the environment provides for children of different ages and abilities. These spaces have a way of meeting children where they are at and providing “just right” opportunities to build feelings of competence and confidence.

Undoubtedly, creativity and problem-solving skills will be critical for the work of the future. Playing in nature, filled with loose parts and possibilities, fosters creativity in important ways. The open-ended nature of sticks, leaves, flowers, stones, water, soil or sand provides infinite opportunities for inspiration and meaningful play.

In my experience, the more time children spend in such environments the more creative they become, building increasingly sophisticated play schemes and skills in divergent thinking (or ‘thinking outside the box’) that will be highly valuable for their futures.

Top 5 tips for families

Not only is time in nature important for our children’s wellbeing but this also provides a foundation for lifelong connection and caring for the natural world. So, this World Environment Day, why not head outdoors with your little explorers?

Here are 5 of my top tips for families:

  • You don’t need to go far to connect with nature! While pristine wilderness is beautiful, you and your children can meaningfully connect with nature in your backyard, neighbourhood, or even through bringing nature into your home through indoor plants or herb gardens
  • Get out there and explore together. It doesn’t matter whether you know a little or a lot about the natural world to be a great nature mentor — be curious and discover together
  • Invite children to really slow down, notice and connect with the natural world around them using ALL their senses — what are the colours, the scents, the textures?
  • Kids love being ‘nature detectives’. Look for clues about the animals living near you.
  • Keep it fun! Don’t head out for a walk, make it an adventure. Connecting in with children’s interests really helps to get kids moving outdoors. When you arrive, the natural world always has something to capture your fascination and inspire growing minds.

In the words of Richard Louv, remember — “Time in nature is not leisure time, it’s an essential investment in our children’s health “

About Dr Elissa Pearson

Dr Elissa Pearson is a lecturer in developmental and conservation psychology at UniSA Online who specialises in how people - particularly children - connect with the natural world. She is passionate about applying ...

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