Many of my favorite childhood memories involve family camping trips. My mom would load up our pop-up camper, pack up our bikes and whatever else was deemed essential for a successful camping trip. Once we reached our campsite and set-up chores were done, my sisters and I set out to explore. Sometimes this included riding bikes, other times hiking through the trees, playing in whatever lake or stream was nearby. I have very fond memories of these camping trips and looking back on these, I don’t think it was just the campfires and s’mores that made them so special. It was the uninterrupted time we spent in nature, exploring, playing, and enjoying all that was around us.
Research recently completed by Stanford University showed that people who took brief walks through nature reported increased attention and happiness. Researchers found that spending an hour and half in green spaces actually decreased activity in the part of the brain associated with fixating on negative feelings and thoughts. This is just one benefit to spending time in nature. Children benefit from spending time in nature in many ways.
Spending time in nature and participating in unstructured outdoor play:
- encourages development across all domains. Spending time in nature has a positive impact your children’s physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and linguistic development.
- encourages children’s creativity and problem-solving skills.
- improves focus and amplifies intellectual abilities.
- encourages kids to be more physically active.
- can help improve nutrition. Growing fruits and veggies is a great way to encourage kids to try them.
- is linked to increased social abilities and relationships.
- helps reduce stress.
Unfortunately, despite all the benefits, children are spending less time in nature. Kids are spending more time in structured activities, interacting with screens and many parents have concerns about keeping their children safe. Since the benefits to spending time in nature are so great, we want to encourage families to get outside and explore this summer. Here are some easy ways to increase the amount of time you and your child are spending in nature.
- Boost your child’s “Vitamin G.” Researcher Frances Ming Kuo “summarizes various research studies that show that humans benefit from exposure to green environments…Kou uses the phrase ‘Vitamin G’ to capture nature’s role as a necessary ingredient for a healthy life.” So, head to your closest park and explore the green space (grass, trees, gardens, etc.) instead of playing at the playground.
- Make spending time in nature a regularly occurrence. My family’s camping trips happened several times throughout the summer, but we also spent time outside digging in the dirt, climbing trees, playing games and more in our own neighborhood on a daily basis.
- Find nature nearby you. Explore your yard, the boulevard or whatever green space is close to your home. Touch trees, compare leaves, look for bugs, collect sticks and other nature treasures.
- Spend time just enjoying nature by finding a place to just sit and be in nature. A surefire cure for my kids when they were fussy babies was to head outside and lay on a blanket under the tree in our front yard. My kids would be instantly soothed by watching the leaves move.
- Plant a garden in your yard or find a community garden close to you. Another option if you don’t have a yard is to plant in pots. Remember kids who grow their own fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them!
- Allow your child to be bored in nature. If you hear the dreaded, “I’m bored” from your child don’t immediately help them find something to do. Get them outside and see what happens when they are left to their own devices in nature.
- Become an advocate for nature. Keep nature spaces near you clean. Advocate for more green space in communities, especially where people do not have equitable access. Encourage schools to use nature as part of their classroom.
Whether it is incorporating more walks or going on a nature scavenger hunt or exploring your own yard, I encourage you to spend more time outside with your child. It will benefit not only them but you as well. Happy exploring!