All kids love to spend time in nature, climbing, exploring, watching ants and birds, and just plain kicking back and being one with their environment. But did you know that nature is so important to their health that it could even be thought of as a nutrient—a nutrient for which many children today are increasingly at risk of deficiency?
As documented by Richard Luov’s 2007 book, Last Child in the Woods, our current generation of children suffers from a condition that has come to be known as “nature deficit disorder.” Due in part to decreased time spent in outdoor free play, and increased time spent with electronic devices such as cell phones, handheld gaming devices and the internet, observable trends over the past several decades include:
- Increase in ADD and other attention disorders;
- Increase in childhood obesity;
- Changes in brain structure, including a similarity to the brains of heroin addicts in children who text frequently;
- Increasing rates of childhood anxiety and depression—suicide is now the leading cause of death among U.S. college students, according to a 2011 study;
- High rates of risky behavior amongst teens, including unprotected sex, alcohol consumption and illegal drug use.
Outdoor, hands-on educational and enrichment activities and exposure to nature are a proven antidote to these negative trends, according to research at the University of Illinois and other institutions. Similar findings about the benefits of arts activities are well documented.
Nature and arts related activities, including “exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities” have been shown to:
- Reduce attention deficit symptoms in children;
- Reduce stress-related behaviors;
- Improve grades and school performance;
- Reduce risk of depression;
- Encourage creativity and a sense of stewardship of nature and community.
10 Tips to Help Your Child Connect with Nature
Shamini Dhana, founder and CEO of Dhana Inc., offers these 10 fun ideas for helping you and your children get your daily dose of nature:
- Make Nature a habit—schedule time each day to go outside and see what’s new in your back yard.
- When possible, walk or bike when you’re going somewhere. The exercise and fresh, outdoor air will rejuvenate your bodies and spirits. Younger children usually love to ride on their parents' backs or in a bike trailer or trail-a-bike. It’s a great family bonding experience and saves energy, too!
- If you have a zoo or botanical garden in your community, invest in a family membership. It’s a cost-effective way to take frequent visits and the nature experience won’t be marred by a feeling of pressure to “see it all at once.”
- Talk to your child about how he or she comes from nature and is a part of it. The book “You Are Stardust” by Elin Kelsey is a beautiful introduction to this concept for young children. Myths and legends from indigenous peoples around the world are also recommended.
- Plan family trips around activities in nature. Camping, beach visits and spelunking are all popular choices.
- Encourage your child to draw, paint, write, act or sing about their experiences in and observations about nature.
- Let your child help you pick a nonprofit organization to donate to that is helping protect and preserve Nature. As a company, Dhana has chosen 1% For The Planet, but there are lots of great ones out there. Follow their activities throughout the year to learn about real-life conservation successes you’ve helped make possible. For hands-on involvement, choose a group with a local chapter.
- Create a piece of nature art that is recycled and can be sold at a charity event, fundraiser or even make it a gift for a loved one!
- Start a nature journal with your kid. Record the things you discover in nature as well as any observations and highlights of the day. Include sayings and quotes about nature that you come across which spark an idea or resonate with your child. These activities help reinforce the beauty of nature!
- Keep your child’s at-home environment as natural as possible. Include living plants as part of your household décor. Use natural light when you can. And don’t forget that your child’s largest interface with her environment is her skin. Clothing her in natural, organic apparel that lets her skin breathe and doesn’t expose her to toxic chemicals is a fun and easy way to keep her feeling great!
How does your family enjoy connecting with nature?