Why Kids Need to Spend Time Exploring the Natural World

Highly-structured and too much screen-time

Between the demands of work, errands, fitness, and family, modern life can be a juggling act. We try our best to fit everything in—scheduling workout classes, date nights with our partners, and our children’s increasingly packed schedules.

It’s no surprise that children are also facing increasingly structured days: from school to hockey practice to piano lessons. Getting to-and-from all these activities often entails a good deal of driving, especially because fewer children are walking or biking to school. In Canada, one survey found that although 58% of parents walked or biked to school when they were kids, only 28% of their children enjoy the same freedom.

And, like us grown-ups, kids are spending an increasing amount of time in front of televisions, computers, and on their phones. Active Healthy Kids Canada reported that children 3-to-5 years old spend an average of 2 hours per day in front of screens. Older children spend even more time glued to devices.

Kids need green space

It is hard not to feel that many children today are missing out on something vital: the opportunity to connect with the natural world, freely and on their own terms. Many kids in suburbs and cities have no opportunity to run around in a green space or play by a creek. There is even a name for this issue: Nature deficit disorder.

Researchers in psychology and neuroscience are discovering how essential nature is for the mental wellbeing of both children and adults.

At NatureKids BC, we are passionate about helping children and families get outside. We’ve put together five reasons why it is important for children (and their parents) to spend time playing outside.

When children spend time in nature, they gain:

  1. Higher levels of Confidence and Creativity

Children spend much of their time in highly structured settings—whether sitting in a row of desks or on a hockey bench—and being closely observed by adults.

Play is often highly regimented. When a kid goes to soccer practice, they are following the drills set out by the coach and doing their best to meet expectations.

But when a kid plays outside, there is a lot more freedom to move and to think. It is up to them, and their imagination, to decide whether a tree is a fort, a cozy house, or a quiet friend. What is the best way to cross a small creek or crack open a nut? When children get to choose how they connect with the natural world, they gain confidence in their abilities.  

Fascinating research is also shedding light on the connections between time spent in nature and creativity. One study found that backpackers who had spent four days on the trail were 50% more creative. Another study found that walking in a park for a little as 25 minutes provided a boost to brain function.

While more research remains to be done, it seems likely that these positive effects will be especially pronounced in children, since their minds are in a state of rapid development.

2. Reduced Stress and Increased Wellbeing

Psychologists have found that many of our modern activities, such as answering emails, texting, or playing video games, draw heavily on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in multi-tasking. Overuse can wear us out, scatter our attention, and make us feel anxious.

Whether you are an adult of 45 or a kid of 4 or 5, spending time in nature has been shown to calm the mind. With less demands on the prefrontal cortex, other parts of the mind, such as our imagination centres, have room to flourish. A walk in the woods produces the same sense of wellbeing and ease as relaxing in a hot shower. Researchers have referred to this as a state of “soft fascination,” where the mind is engaged without being strained.

The restorative powers of nature are especially important for children with ADHD. One study found evidence that children diagnosed with ADHD experience milder symptoms if they play in green settings than if they play in built-up indoors or outdoor settings.  

In Japan they refer to this calming effect as forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. “Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us,” writes Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.

3. Connection with the World

Video games and television shows bombard kids’ senses. And they are often, in the short term, more compelling than a walk in the forest. But given enough opportunity, kids learn to engage with nature will all of their senses—touch, smell, hearing, even taste. As their senses are opened to the natural world, so too are their minds.

Given the chance, children are eager to learn about the animals and plants we share this planet with. Exploring a meadow, they learn about the connection between flowers and pollinators. Provided with seeds and soil, they learn about what living things need to grow and, when trusted to keep this plant alive, they will learn responsibility.

Many of us are concerned about the health of the environment and the fate of the myriad plants and animals facing habitat loss and the threat of extinction. If we want children to grow up to value and protect nature, they must first be given the chance to connect deeply with a small patch of woods. Nature needs the love of kids, just as much as kids need nature. 

4. A Sense of Wonder

Many of us feel a sense of awe when viewing a mountain ridge, waterfall, or sunset. Children are especially attuned to the splendour of the natural world. It makes them think about the animals and plants that share our planet and about all the web of relationships that make every ecosystem so vibrant.

The natural world is a display of boundless creativity. As the naturalist, David Attenborough, said: “There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive.” For children, it can be especially incredible to learn that there is much that adults have not discovered about the world: mysteries still abound.  

5. More Relaxed Socializing

Indoors, children have to deal with each other in close quarters. When playing outside, children can choose to engage with others more gradually, breaking off to play by themselves and seeking out other children as they wish. There makes for less conflict and more fun.

Being outside also allows for different relationships to develop between children and adults. In the classroom, there is a teacher and there are students. Outside, children have a chance to share what they have learned about an interesting flower or insect. They become both teachers and learners, sharing their knowledge to accomplish a task or make sense of a new discovery. The calming effect of green leaves and running water also play a role.

NatureKids BC Connects Kids and Families with Nature

Only a generation or two ago, kids spent their free time playing outside: kicking cans, playing tag, catching frogs, and flipping over rocks to marvel at strange, many-legged creatures. They endured mud, scraped knees, and splinters. They also gained confidence, independence, and a deep connection with the natural world.

At NatureKids BC, we give children the chance to explore nature. They gain knowledge of the natural world and self-assurance. Our membership program and fun Explorer Days helps children and families get outside and connect with the marvels and denizens of this beautiful province.  

Learn more about becoming a NatureKids BC member.

Written by Connal McNamara for NatureKids BC. Image credit: H. Datoo.


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