The Necessity of Nature in Children’s Development

Jen Zotalis
Do It Green! Magazine

With non-stop schedules, a plethora of electronic devices and a devastated image of the environment, children today have little opportunity or encouragement to experience nature as an enjoyable and sustaining presence in their lives. The result, Richard Louv suggests, can be found in record diagnoses of obesity, attention deficit and emotional disorders in children. Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, introduced the child-nature disconnect into public consciousness in 2005, and called parents’ and policy makers’ attention to a crucial imbalance in contemporary childhood. Recent research by child psychology experts and educators sends a clear message: access to green space and unstructured play in nature are critical for children’s emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual development.

Louv cites research from top universities and educational organizations. Child development experts from Cornell University have found that even children in rural settings whose homes are surrounded by more natural environments “exhibited fewer behavioral conduct disorders” and less anxiety and depression than those from homes with less natural surroundings. “High nature” settings, the researchers explain, “appear to be better when it comes to bolstering children’s resilience against stress or adversity.” Studies at the University of Illinois Human-Environment Research Laboratory have shown that natural settings markedly “relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders” in children and improve concentration abilities following time in green environments. The greener the surroundings, the more symptom relief a child experiences. A 20-minute walk in a park improved children’s concentration more than a walk of the same duration in a residential area.

Children’s need for nature also has implications for learning and educational policy. In addition to green school yard design, environment-based education programs have been shown to improve academic performance and engagement. In their study of 150 schools across 16 states, the State Education and Environmental Roundtable have found that participation in environment-based programs led to higher standardized test scores and grade point averages with specific “gains in social studies, science, language arts and math.” Students in these programs also exhibited better problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Child development experts add that unstructured play in natural settings cultivates other, less palpable benefits, including more creative and gender-neutral play, less hierarchical social interaction, higher self-worth and spiritual reflection. Robin Moore, director of the National Learning Initiative, explains that the unique “sensory stimulation” children experience in natural settings nurtures not only social interaction but the healthy development of children’s “interior, hidden, affective worlds.” Likewise, Richard Louv suggests, nature fosters children’s spiritual imagination as they encounter its strength, constancy and aesthetic grandeur. In his study of children and spirituality, child psychologist Edward Hoffman found that “most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature.”

In response to this research, Louv and other experts are calling for a “nature-child reunion.” Many environmental, child advocacy and community organizations are doing their part by promoting awareness and offering family and community-oriented programs. Others are advocating for natural play opportunities, greener design of schools and communities, and a nature-inclusive curriculum at all levels of education. This spring the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum held its 10th annual conference on “growing to learn” for parents, educators, and community members. The conference, entitled “Nature Nourished: Creating New Child/Nature Connections,” shared the latest research as well as education and community-based strategies for “nature nourished development.” The National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour website encourages families to give children at least one hour each day of “unstructured play and interaction with the natural world.” The website offers weekly activity lists and a community corner for parent discussion and idea sharing.

What You Can Do:

  • Enjoy family time in area parks, campgrounds and nature preserves.
  • Explore other nature-focused sites such as arboretums, nature centers, botanical gardens, natural history museums, and farms/orchards that offer family events.
  • Take advantage of resources like the National Wildlife Federation’s tips as well as the extensive family programming at sites such as the Audubon Center of the North Woods or the Minnesota Arboretum.
  • Share your own enjoyment of nature. Tell your child about your favorite natural places from childhood. Ask your child about the places and outdoor activities he/she enjoys.
  • Take up a nature related hobby with your child such as bird watching, nature photography, canoeing or gardening.
  • Get a group together for some old-fashioned creek stomping, fort building or river tubing.
  • Allow your child to nurture a bit of nature. Whether it’s a garden plot or a window box, children will benefit from the personal attachment and caretaking responsibilities.
  • Encourage your child’s school officials to incorporate nature study and outdoor learning experiences into the curriculum. Voice your support for natural settings in schoolyard design.
  • Instill respect for the natural environment by modeling sustainable living practices and volunteering for environmental initiatives or organizations.
Read Up

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen A. Trimble, Beacon Press, Concord Library, 1995.

Act Locally
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—State Parks

National Park Service—Minnesota National Parks

Children and Nature

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