It’s a month into winter and for many of us it’s hard not to hibernate. But for kids especially, research shows getting outdoors has more than just physical benefits. ParentMap’s Hilary Benson is here this morning with more.
Why is spending time outside especially beneficial for kids?
It’s really fitting with today being Martin Luther King Day because 50 years ago he showed us the connection between the health of our environment and the health of our communities. It’s another of his messages that’s as relevant today as ever.
There’s a growing body of research showing that we should be turning our kids loose outside more:
University of Illinois studies show that direct exposure to nature can relieve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Even 20 minutes in a park setting can elevate ‘attention performance’. So, study author (Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor) suggests “doses of nature” can serve as safe, inexpensive tools in the toolkit for managing ADHD symptoms.
By comparison, indoor activities leave these children functioning worse.
Other benefits of exposure to nature on mental health include improved resistance to stress and depression, which means the protective impact of nature is the most important for the most vulnerable children, those with the highest levels of stress from overwhelming life events.
But when these studies talk about getting outside in nature, it doesn’t mean signing them up for another soccer team, does it?
Exactly right. For many parents, we do that thinking it’s the ‘safest’ because organized sports have someone watching over the kids. Pediatricians are seeing more repetitive stress injuries from overuse doing too much of one particular sport.
University of Texas researchers talk about how of course organized sports are good for fighting obesity, but that there’s no replacement for free, independent play, especially when it’s outside in natural settings.
Nature doesn’t just mean a forest. It can be the backyard, a vacant lot nearby… parents want to find a spot that’s safe and away from traffic.
The author who has led the charge on this is Richard Louv; he coined a term “nature deficit disorder” which isn’t a medical diagnosis per se but a metaphor for the good that comes from allowing kids time and space to roam free outside.
(He’s coming to Seattle for a lecture we’re hosting in a couple of weeks, there’s information on parentmap.com)
You mention obesity, but does time outside have other physical benefits?
In comparison with all-weather schools in Scandinavia, for instance, where students go outside nearly every day for learning time, not just recess… those students have fewer colds and less flu.
So, if parents have some time today with kids home from school, what are tips for reconnecting with nature?
A number of local places such as Seward Park’s Audubon Center and Pt. Defiance Park have MLK Jr. Days of Service, so you can combine the service component with being outside. Those might involve clearing weeds and restoring healthy habitats. We have an article on our ParentMap.com site called MLK Weekend Playlist with all of this information.
Hilary’s tips for “Connecting Kids to Nature”
- Embrace Outdoors Sports: from skiing to snowshoeing, sledding, hiking in the low-lands or on the urban trails, for families with kids really on the go. By the way, in honor of MLK Jr. day, national parks are waiving entrance fees so there's extra incentive to go…
- Explore Nature Adventures: Maybe your kids don’t need the sports component. Particularly for younger kids, you could have a seasonal scavenger hunt or set up bird feeders.
- Claim a Special Space in Nature: This is more than just a one-off; in your own yard, or if you’re lucky enough to be near a park or field, find a place where your kids can be outside by themselves and observe, play, decompress.
"Twenty minutes in a park setting was sufficient to elevate attention performance relative to the same amount of time in other settings. These findings indicate that environments can enhance attention not only in the general population but also in ADHD populations. “Doses of nature” might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms." — Dr Andrea Faber Taylor, University of Illinois
Was MLK an Environmentalist?
As a visionary, Martin Luther King Jr. talked about many issues that touched on justice and spoke against the separation of moral judgement from technological advancements. And King’s legacy gave fruit to the environmental justice movement, which seeks to ensure the right to a clean and healthy environment to all people. And he often framed issues in the universal terminology of the natural world.
“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.” — Martin Luther King Jr.