Research shows what many parents have long known, that children who learn and play in nature are healthier both mentally and physically. Active, unstructured play outdoors helps build a child’s physical strength and also helps children build social and emotional skills such as problem solving and self-esteem.
Children today are spending seven to 11 hours per day sitting with media and only minutes per day playing outdoors. With that sedentary lifestyle we’ve found a rise in childhood obesity, depression, near-sightedness and ADHD. The good news is this is a situation that everyone can improve by taking the kids in their life outside. Families who make a plan to be active in nature are helping their children build skills that will contribute to a healthier life.
Unstructured Free Play Brings Cognitive, Social and Health Benefits
Unstructured free play in the out-of-doors brings a host of benefits to children-from being smarter to more cooperative to healthier overall. This well-documented article by two physicians builds a strong case for the importance of unstructured free play in the out-of-doors for all age groups, and especially young children. While concerned about the "obesity epidemic" in young children, the authors say that the health benefits from outdoor play are only one aspect of the overall benefits. They suggest that the concept of "play" is more compelling and inviting to most adult caregivers, parents and guardians than "exercise." The authors cite cognitive benefits from play in nature, including creativity, problem-solving, focus and self-discipline. Social benefits include cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include stress reduction, reduced aggression and increased happiness. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors. (Synthesis)
Burdette, Hillary L., M.D., M.S.; and Robert C. Whitaker, M.D, M.P.H. "Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation and Affect." © 2005 American Medical Association.
The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, to 17 percent of children in this age group. The rate of clinically obese adolescents (aged 12-19) more than tripled, to 17.6 percent. The Centers for Disease Control concludes that a major missing ingredient is an hour per day of moderate physical activity.
Study: CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Division of Adolescent and School Health. Childhood Obesity. 20 Oct. 2008.
Lack of Vitamin D
Many children in the U.S., especially minorities, need more Vitamin D. Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, protecting children from bone problems and other health issues.
Study: American Academy of Pediatrics. “Many Children have suboptimal Vitamin D Levels,” Pediatrics. October 26, 2009.
Natural Settings and Cognitive Behavior: Children who are exposed to natural or outdoor settings receive benefits to their cognitive health, such as reduction of ADHD symptoms.
Study: Wells, N.M. (2000). At Home with Nature: Effects of “greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior (32), 6, pp 775-795.
Anxiety, Rumination, Mood
This study investigated the impact of nature experience on affect and cognition. We randomly assigned sixty participants to a 50-min walk in either a natural or an urban environment in and around Stanford, California. Before and after their walk, participants completed a series of psychological assessments of affective and cognitive functioning. Compared to the urban walk, the nature walk resulted in affective benefits (decreased anxiety, rumination, and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect) as well as cognitive benefits (increased working memory performance). This study extends previous research by demonstrating additional benefits of nature experience on affect and cognition through assessments of anxiety, rumination, and a complex measure of working memory (operation span task). These findings further our understanding of the influence of relatively brief nature experiences on affect and cognition, and help to lay the foundation for future research on the mechanisms underlying these effects.
The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition Gregory N. Bratmana,∗, Gretchen C. Dailyb, Benjamin J. Levyc, James J. Grossd
a Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University, 473 Via Ortega, Suite 226, Stanford, CA 94305, United States
b Center for Conservation Biology (Department of Biology) and Woods Institute for the Environment, Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building – MC 4205, Stanford University, 473 Via Ortega, Stanford, CA 94305, United States
c Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117, United States
d Department of Psychology, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305, United States
Nature of Americans Study
It has become apparent in recent years that the American public is becoming more inclined to participate in indoor activities over outdoor ones. Media and electronic devices are becoming increasingly more enticing for children and adults. Participating in outdoor recreational activities are taking a back seat to the virtual world. At the same time, a correlation is showing between the amount of outdoor time an individual has and their health. Studies have shown that a decline in health is present when people are lack nature interaction in their daily lives. This study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Kellert and DJ Case & Associates, gained insight of nearly 12,000 adults, children and parents across the United States. The major findings were categorized into eight topics: Interest–action gap, Nature is social, Where nature is located, Quality and quantity of places, Valuing nature, Nature-related programming and funding, Complex and nuanced relationship and Benefits of nature. These eight findings lead to recommendations that correlate with the benefits of nature supported by Texas Children in Nature which include: an increase in cooperation, feelings of connection to nature, a care for the environment’s future, and an improvement in the physical and mental health of children.
Study: Escher, Dr. Daniel, Kellert, Dr. Stephen, Mikels-Carrasco, Dr. Jessica, Kellert, Seng, Phil T., Witter, Dr. Daniel J., (2017) “The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection” DJ Case and Associates, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Disney Conservation Fund, Wildlife Management Institute, Harold M and Adeline S Morrison Family Foundation, and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Nature of Americans- Texas State Level Study
The Nature of Americans Study was done with the goal of examining the American public’s relationship to nature. Texas was a state of specific focus for this study. It became apparent through the state wide study that although Texas children are drawn to nature and nature is surveyed as being highly enjoyable to Texas adults, few Texas adults have outdoor oriented pastimes. The study consisted of 261 children with one parent per child, and 2,379 adults across the state. This study sheds light on the specific challenges and barriers of Texas citizens when it comes to connecting with nature. The Texas Children in Nature Network works to help Texas organizations remove these barriers through its regional collaboratives.
Study: Escher, Dr. Daniel, Kellert, Dr. Stephen, Mikels-Carrasco, Dr. Jessica, Kellert, Seng, Phil T., Witter, Dr. Daniel J., (2017) “The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection” DJ Case and Associates, Yale University, and Texas Parks and Wildlife.