Do you have memories of nature or playing outdoors from childhood? What do they conjure up? As a child growing up in the suburbs, if it was a nice day out, you were outside. There were usually a gaggle of us from the neighborhood riding bikes, playing kickball, climbing trees, or playing in the snow.
We learned to get along at varying ages, made rules amongst one another, argued, compromised, learned animals and their habitats, and indulged our imaginations. In general, the outdoors and nature were a place where we as kids had the freedom and space to learn on our own terms, building our bodies, brains, and characters in ways we’d yet to realize.
Benefits of Nature on Childhood Development
The primary benefit of the outdoors and green spaces on children’s health is sensory exposure and stimulation that supports healthy cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development.
By spending time outdoors, children are inclined to be curious and creative, to use critical thinking skills, and develop an inquisitive mind. When a child has time, space and freedom outdoors, they also tend to lead their own learning, building confidence (Child Mind).
As a farmer, I find plants to be great teachers. What happens when a plant isn’t watered enough? Why did the plant in the sun get bigger than the one in the shade? Why doesn’t this one look like that one? While these questions certainly help you learn how a certain plant functions, and how they interact with the environment around them, they are also great for helping kids (and adults!) to conceptualize something they observed and apply it to other aspects of life; if you keep a tomato plant in a little pot, it’ll never grow tomatoes.
Exercise and outdoor activities supports a child’s motor skill development, coordination, and promotes physical well-being awareness. What happens when you fall off your bike and get hurt? Do you try again? Were you going too fast? In this way, physical activity outdoors is teaching them how to keep themselves safe and lends a hand to learning risk assessment and resilience (Healthy Children).
In regards to physical health and immunity, studies show that children who spend time outdoors are less likely to develop asthma, obesity and short sightedness (Healthy Children).
In Finnish study, children who formerly played in the gravel yard of an urban day care center were reported to have better-regulated immune systems and healthier microbiomes (gut and skin bacteria) within a month of the yard being restored to a natural forest floor (AAAS).
As an adult, you know how good it feels to be outside- to feel a deep breath and the calmness it brings you or to get your blood pumping and have a good sweat.
Provided with an outdoor space, children can engage in behaviors they might not be inside, such as yelling or climbing, which in turn helps them reduce tension and restlessness, which is especially good for children with ADHD (Child Mind). Additionally, when a child gets hurt outside, they may have to engage in self-soothing or self-regulating behaviors and learn how to manage their emotions without the help of an adult (Parents with Confidence).
When we socialize children, we want them to learn healthy social skills, develop sound relationships, cope with stress and develop a sense of identity and self-esteem. When engaging without adults on the playground, children have the space to make their own rules, decide if they like to be alone and how to get along. On the playground, children have an opportunity to learn how to work together, cooperate, and manage relationships (Harvard).
As technology advances, and more children are socialized by technology vs. nature and the outdoors, it’s important to ask what values, characters, and mental states will result. The quote by Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum comes to mind, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.“
A child who spends time in nature is more likely to become an adult who appreciates, respects, and possibly advocates for nature. If we raise a generation who understands what can be lost environmentally at the hands of human development, we may have a generation of stewards who can protect the resources and natural beauty of our planet as we move into the future.
AAAS: City Day Care Yards with Forest Floor Boosted Children’s Immune Systems
Child Mind: Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature
Harvard Blog: 6 Reasons Children Need to Play Outside
Healthy Children: Playing Outside: Why It’s Important for Kids
Parents with Confidence: 40 Astounding Benefits of Outdoor Nature Play for Kids