How do you define nature? Vast green fields, a dense forest, or waves crashing on the beach? Finding these ideal examples of nature can be difficult in an increasingly urban and technological world. In addition, outdoor natural play areas are disappearing, and play has moved inside to smaller and smaller spaces.
The lack of opportunities for natural experiences has had an impact on all of us, but today’s children are especially at risk of what Richard Louv in 2005 called “nature-deficit disorder.” This is not a medical condition, but describes the impact of separating humans from nature, which has been shown to affect us negatively.
For children, the results can include obesity, increased stress and anxiety, decreased academic success, attention difficulties, and an overall lack of connection to the environment. On the other hand, getting out in nature has been shown to have many benefits, helping kids mentally, physically, and academically.
Outdoor play is often more physical than indoor play, encouraging kids to get active and move. Natural play areas are more dynamic, giving children more opportunity for movement and the development of motor skills. These benefits are not good solely in the present. They can set kids up for better health into the future. While playing outside, kids can run, jump, climb, slide, crawl, find, observe, and imagine beyond what they could in an indoor environment.
Speaking of imagining, natural play has been shown to increase children’s creativity. Outdoors in nature, kids find a vast assortment of sticks, rocks, leaves, and more that spark the imagination. A stick may become a magic wand, a rock may become a mountain, a leaf may become a fairy skirt.
Particularly in unstructured child-led play, a child’s imagination can run wild. Having the chance to explore and act on nature in natural play settings not only builds a child’s creativity, but their self-confidence and self-efficacy as well. Children grow up knowing that they can… they can climb that tree, and they can affect their environment.
Being outdoors in sunlight increases their vitamin D levels. Studies have also shown that outdoor play may reduce a child’s chance of becoming nearsighted. Remember making mud pies as a child? It has been found that playing in the dirt can improve a child’s immune system with lasting effects.
Playing outside can improve children’s mental health. Green spaces can reduce stress in children and help them to feel happier. A study published in 2004 showed that being in nature can help to reduce symptoms of ADHD in some children. While not a cure-all, getting outside helps children improve attention and impulse control. This is one pathway by which students can improve their grades by spending time outdoors.
Children who play in nature gain confidence, creativity, and restored attention that can help them academically. By playing in nature, children may develop better problem-solving skills, and some children may find it easier to learn new concepts in the quiet calm of nature. Studies have shown that children who play and learn in nature may score higher on standardized tests.
Outdoor Play Encourages Pro-Environmental Behavior
It Reduces Stress For Adults, Too!
Learning about the world around us—outside classrooms and living rooms—encourages pro-environmental behavior. By building a connection to the plants and animals outside and learning how the environment works, kids develop an understanding of nature. Children may see the food chain in action. They experience the water cycle and weather. They observe birds flying, ants crawling, rabbits hopping. Kids can then use their insight, along with their creativity and imagination, to confront environmental issues.
But these benefits aren’t just for kids. Taking some extra time to experience nature helps adults, too. Reduced stress, better attention, increased self-discipline—the benefits of being in nature extend to adulthood. It is never too late to get out and have a natural experience! So how do we do that? Take a walk through a park and try to identify the plants and animals around you. Start a garden and learn how plants grow. Go for a bike ride. Watch the birds as they fly.
Nature is all around us. You don’t have to find that open field, that forest, or that beach (but if you can, great!). Even in the most urban of environments—a tree here, a squirrel there, the call of a bird, we can see and hear nature. Take a moment to get outside, to experience whatever nature is around you. Listen to it, watch it, breathe it in. Nature is calling, so answer the call!
Michelle Van Hove is a museum educator at Virginia Living Museum. For more information, please visit thevlm.org.