According to recent studies, kids spend an average of 4-7 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play, while they spend 5-7 hours in front of a screen*. The past 18 months has certainly compounded that situation as kids avoided other children and playgrounds and public parks were shuttered. There weren't many places to go outside of your house and kids settled in.
Time to Kick Open the Door
But being outside and experiencing the natural world, even in small ways, has enormous benefits to a child's mind and development. Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, writes that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. Other articles, like this one from Porch.com, echo similar themes. Maybe it's time to kick open the doors and head outdoors now that states are opening up, park space and forest preserves are welcoming visitors, and national parks and summer vacations are on everyone's minds.
The Benefits of Time Outdoors
One of the chief benefits in heading outside is that a natural environment offers a unique set of stimulation from inside activities. Walking on grass or sand or rocks wakes up senses and neurons that indoor experiences can't match. Encountering new materials and textures also gets kids thinking, not only about how nature managed to produce these things, but about their own connections to this wider world. They may bring an acorn home in their pocket, a brightly colored leaf or a rock with a funny shape. Kids are naturally curious and a natural environment offers no end of stimulation.
All of this exploring and thinking also builds a child's confidence, as they negotiate new terrains and encounter new problems to solve. Participating in actions as small as watering plants promotes nurturing and responsibility as well. After more than a year of isolation and self-involvement, a trip outside can help kids understand the larger perspective of their place in the world foster an appreciation for issues larger than themselves.
The Creative World Outside
There isn't a more creative environment than the great outdoors. Whether it's your backyard, neighborhood park or rooftop garden, the opportunities to learn and be creative are endless.
I remember a walk with a friend's child in Central Park and after getting a drink at Starbucks, we headed onto the meandering paths of the park. Soon we came across a little sign by a tree that told us what species of tree it was and without prompting, she took out her phone and typed in the name -- she wanted to know more about the seed pods hanging from the branches. She took a few of the fallen pods to bring home. She was engaging with the natural world the way many modern children do-- using technology to expand their experiences. She told me she would probably paint the pods and maybe try to hang them above her desk.
Easy Ideas for Getting Your Kids Involved in Nature
1. Take a nature walk: how many bugs did you find, how many animals did you see? Old kids can try to identify trees or plants by their leaves. Ask your children questions like, "Did you hear any animals you did not see?" or explain the parts of a plant and what they do.
2. Make a colorful mosaic using dried beans like kidney, white, pinto and green. Lightly sketch a picture on a stiff piece of paper like construction paper or posterboard, and carefully arrange and glue the beans to create a natural mosaic!
3. Patterns naturally appear in nature and you can also create patterns using natural materials. Collect a dozen or more of one thing: dandelions, leaves, rocks or seedpods and then arrange them into a pattern of your own. It's surprising how seeing multiples of an object can help you appreciate the beauty in the smallest of things.
4. Paint with plants: Plants offer natural dyes and colorings and kids will love creating art using the natural pigments found in plants like spinach, beets, or blueberries. Take a few leaves of spinach or other leafy green in your hands and rub it on paper. The chlorophyll will transfer to the paper leaving green marks. You can do this with many plants and it's a great way to help kids understand the hidden treasures plants offer.
Many one of the greatest benefits of spending time in nature is that it reduces stress and fatigue, something all of us, kids and adults, need more than ever after this last year.
*Study by the Child Mind Institute