What is your relationship with the outdoors? Do you like to garden, fish, bicycle, or camp? Do you generally look out the window wishing you were outside? If you are someone who enjoys the outdoors do you know where your affinity for natural places originated?
You most likely spent a lot of time as a child outside and had an adult in your life who helped to nurture your enjoyment of the outdoors. I was fortunate to spend hours of unsupervised time catching tadpoles, building forts, eating wild berries and sometimes just sitting on an old fallen tree looking at the clouds. It wasn’t all fun and games; I also spent countless hours pulling weeds, harvesting the garden and mowing. Unfortunately this may not be true for future generations.
There is a growing disconnect between children and nature. Kids spend at least seven hours of their day staring at screens with only minutes a day in unstructured play outside. This deficiency of nature is threatening both their health and the health of our environment. Children’s mental health, physical health, spiritual health and cognitive development are all affected by diminished outdoor time.
Studies show time spent playing in nature improves mood, enables children to learn and retain knowledge better, is associated with lower body mass, imprints children with healthier immune systems, improves eyesight and lowers symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. I guess the scientists have now proven what my parents already knew; dirt under the fingernails could be good for your health.
Childhood experiences in nature are the most significant contributor to growing up as an adult with a deep commitment to the environment. While you were getting your hands muddy and feet wet playing outside as a child you were developing a love for nature. In order to build ecologically sustainable communities we must first address our children’s connection to nature.
Having an adult nurture that respect or love of the outdoors is the second most important factor in becoming an environmental steward. In my life those adults were my parents and grandparents. They weren’t following me around in the woods however, giving me naturalist lessons and supervising my outdoor play. Rather they served as role models, took me camping, kicked me outdoors regardless of the weather, taught me to can from the garden and put up with the messy clothes afterward.
Nature has played a large role in my family’s life.
As a parent I have often used the woods on our property as a nanny, entertaining my kids for hours while I mowed or pulled weeds. It isn’t as easy as keeping them indoors. I have found countless tools, pieces of plywood, and other things my children dragged out for their forts and left in the dirt. Likewise I have many treasures under their beds; rocks, shells, feathers, bones, and sticks that have been brought indoors from their adventures. I have found owl pellets in my microwave.
There was a trip to the emergency room for stitches with the kids covered in mud, and anxiety-filled moments as the kids paddled their own kayaks down a whitewater river. Providing a nature-rich environment will help children grow up to be more curious, confident, resilient, empathetic toward living creatures, and appreciative of natural beauty. It may not always be so good for the microwave or the washing machine.
Raising outdoor children doesn’t require a trip to a national park or expensive gear (but don’t tell my husband). Natural places can be found out your back door. If you want to venture beyond your backyard, we have school grounds, parks, trails, community gardens and nature preserves in our community where you can climb rocks, overturn rotting logs, smell flowers, roll in the wet grass or listen to the birds. A digital map listing these sites in Delaware County can be found at http://bit.ly/RecreationOpportunities.
In upcoming columns I hope to provide more information on programs, places, and activities to help you connect with nature. Parents and grandparents are the gatekeepers to children’s time outside. Kids need the stimulation, adventure and sense of wonder that can only be found when they connect to nature, and nature needs children to fall in love with it.