Why kids need to spend time in nature

Child in nature

Spending time in nature is healthy for both children and adults. It has been scientifically proven and society is increasingly aware of it. However, the widespread use of electronic devices, the sometimes hectic lives we lead in cities, and the lack of adequate habits often make us forget about going back to where we come from: nature. How can we reverse this tendency? There are various initiatives around the world that seek to reconnect children with the environment.

Around the world, there are organized and ambitious efforts to get children closer to nature. Firstly, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which operates in the United States of America, has a campaign that aims at getting 21 million American children into the outdoors. NWF has already demonstrated it accomplishes the goals it sets: it had planned to get 10 million children to have specific outdoors experiences with certain frequency between 2013 and 2015, and not only did the Federation achieve this objective but it also surpassed it by 38%, which meant that 14 million kids became involved in this project.

These kinds of initiatives are extremely necessary and timely. Around the world, children are spending less and less time outdoors. As can be seen from a British investigation and public campaign of 2016, called “Free the kids, dirt is good”, on average, children spend less time outdoors than some prison inmates do. On the other hand, kids spend much more time facing a screen (including TVs, cell phones, computers, tablets).

Not spending enough time outdoors can have negative consequences on health. Author and activist Richard Louv calls this “nature deficit disorder”. Some of the symptoms may include obesity, stress, learning disorders, hyperactivity, chronic fatigue or depression. On the contrary, getting in touch with nature has proven benefits for children’s wellbeing: it improves their health, their attention span, self-trust, cognitive and motor development, empathy, and it increases their commitment to environmental care. Besides, a person who incorporates the habit of connecting to nature since childhood will most probably keep this attitude through life.

21 million children campaign

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is working with other NGOs and different local and regional associations to promote greater contact between children and nature, specifically targeting 21 million children. To get closer to its goal, the NWF seeks to encourage families, schools, recreation centres and other institutions to offer the children in their care more time outdoors. At the same time, it works to achieve public policy reforms and financing that allow children to spend more time in nature. In addition, the NWF is implementing different actions:

  • National camping campaign: every year the NWF organizes a public campaign to promote the experience of sleeping outside, camping in parks, patios, or campsites, as a way to reconnect with nature. According to Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of NWF, "there is no better way for children to deepen their relationship with the natural world than to spend an evening in the open air under the stars."

  • Natural play: this action seeks to bring nature to playgrounds. It aims at transforming patios, childhood centres, museums and zoos into spaces where children can connect, play and learn in nature. Some examples of adaptations are: setting up rocks for children to climb, ponds where they can trap insects, tree trunks for practicing balance, and multisensory gardens.

  • Biodiversity habitats in courtyards: the NWF helps schools, homes, churches, community centres, parks, campsites, children's centres and other institutions to create habitats for animals and plants in their yards. These habitats create and restore wildlife in patios, offering at the same time an opportunity to connect with nature, learn to observe and care for it.

Kevin Coyle, Vice President for Education and Training at the NWF, explains that the 21 million campaign focuses on promoting contact with nature in spaces and institutions where children already spend their time - such as schools, early childhood centres, recreation agencies, parks, and extracurricular programs. In addition, Coyle clarifies that they are oriented to support experiences close to home and not in distant places that are only visited a few times a year or once in a lifetime.

The science on which the NWF is based holds that children develop a love of nature when they spend time in natural environments, when they direct their focus and attention to the natural world and to animals and plants, when they have frequent outdoor experiences (more than once a week) and when they learn skills and knowledge that make them feel fulfilled and talented. All this can happen while children work in the garden, while creating inventories of plants and animals, walking on trails, visiting parks or playing in specially designed patios.

Other initiatives aiming at getting children closer to nature

NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) works in the same way, offering programs and organizing expeditions to wild places around the world, in which participants learn different survival and leadership skills. As an example, they must find and / or build shelters and places to sleep, get their own food, orient themselves using maps, prevent and treat wounds.

In some countries of the world, there is a growing educational tendency called "forest school" or "Waldkindergartens", inspired by the Scandinavian countries, which incorporates the natural world in the educational process of children. There are already hundreds of schools that apply this philosophy in England, Germany, South Korea, Japan, USA and the movement is expanding to more and more countries. Teachers mention improvements in self-esteem and greater ability to assess risks and make decisions, as some of the advantages of this system. In this type of pedagogy, there are more teachers per student, it seeks to involve all the senses, and give greater prominence to children.

Another interesting case is the Kids Nature Club, which operates in Western Australia. Kirstie Pupazzoni, one of its managers, explains that the goal of the club is to take children to the local natural areas, so that they can enjoy, learn about them and contribute to their conservation. To do this, they organize guided walks, use games as a pedagogical strategy (such as building fortresses, climbing trees, making crafts, etc.), motivate the children with curious facts, and seek to connect them with the local flora and fauna. Kirstie emphasizes the importance of children to have the opportunity to take care of the places where they play, since this is how they learn to exercise their sense of service and become part of the community. In this way, they feel connected, valued and part of something relevant.

Do you know of other initiatives that aim at getting children closer to nature? Do you think it’s important for children to be close to nature? Did you spend time outdoors when you were a kid?