Oh, aren’t our children today lucky to have so many activities and access to modern technology? But where is the time in their everyday lives to connect with the multitude of delights offered by nature? Or just enjoy natural play in an outdoors with no boundaries or rules? Why is it so important for children’s well-being that they spend time outdoors in a natural environment?
Sometimes I break the normal routine during the school week to make sure my children get a dose of nature.
This is what happens when my children have an idyllic nature walk from school to home:
The afternoon was free of any after-school clubs, karate, tennis, ballet or riding lessons or such like. I left the car at home and made my way through the woods and up a steep hill. At the school gates I greeted my twins with their walking shoes.
They looked at me in awe when I told them to hold my hands and follow me down the lane. We were going to make the journey home on foot from their English village school. Only one road did we have to cross.
Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in positive ways.” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
A nature walk like this was not just slotting in leisure time within their busy schedule but a means for me as a parent to help them to be healthier, more creative and happier.
It can also make them perform better at school.
So many studies and reports, campaigns and back-to-nature movements emphasize that children need nature and time outdoors whether for their emotional well-being, improving their learning abilities, increasing their attentiveness, reducing stress and anxiety, or merely to appreciate the wonders of the natural environment. (The list of benefits goes on – see Note below for sources)
The author and journalist Richard Louv describes children left indoors as suffering ‘nature deficit disorder.’
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Margaret Atwood, novelist, poet and environmental activist b 1939
We were heading home as the crow flies. We hadn’t even reached the nature trail and my kids were already clambering up and down the sides of the dirt track.
Then we were at the top of a hill. I paused to gaze upon the glory of the English landscape. They ran with complete abandon down its steep grassy slope. I felt the warmth of the sun on this spring day. They felt the air rush freely against their cheeks.
As a child I was happiest playing outdoors. When I got back home from school, I’d throw down my books and go out to play. My children don’t do that.” David Bond, Project Wild Thing
What happened? We were outdoors as children. Our children are not.
In the late 1960s upwards of 50% of American children walked to and from school each day (The Atlantic ‘Why kids don’t walk to school anymore’). Now it’s nearer to 10 percent. More than 70% of today’s UK parents walked to school as children. Less than half of their children walk to school today (Living Streets Org). Just a generation ago 50% of children in the UK played in wild places (National Trust). Now? Less than 10%. In the last few decades US children’s amount of time outdoors has dropped by half (National Wildlife Federation).
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
An eternity in an hour.” William Blake, poet 1757-1827
Soon we were on a path meandering through woods and brambles. Wild flowers smiled at my children. At the foot of a stile or under the shade of a tree these tiny natural masterpieces grew.
No signs or officials or busybodies were around ordering my children not to pick or trample flowers or break a twig or stray from the path or forbidding them to climb a tree. But they didn’t have to be told. Without a prompt my daughter reassured me she wouldn’t step on any of the bluebells in the woods. They didn’t want to harm the wildlife around us. They just wanted to share their outdoors home.
The ’50 Things To Do Before You’re 11¾’ initiative is in response to a report commissioned by the National Trust which highlighted research that fewer than 1 in ten children regularly play in wild places compared to almost half a generation ago, a third have never climbed a tree and 1 in ten can’t ride a bike.” The National Trust
The National Trust was founded in 1895 with a mission to ‘promote the preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit’ of the British nation. It is now Britain’s largest private landowner. As a result of studies over the lack of nature in children’s lives, its call for action was to launch the nationwide campaign “50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾.”
Nature is made for childhood adventures. A small clearing with bluebells and a fallen trunk beckoned them. My son swung from a branch. My daughter speculated out loud if this could be a new special outdoors place? They also have a den which they built in the woods. Secret places in the woods like dens also make a difference to children.
When we walked along the edge of a field, I admired the spring blossoms. My children wanted to run, climb a tree, find a stick, sit in the grass, explore. They made up games and had pure unstructured playtime. Our walk home from school should have taken less than 30 minutes but we spent over an hour as every path led to a new discovery, a new diversion, and a new natural play area.
Just living is not enough, one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” Hans Christian Andersen, author 1805-1875
Geese and ducks drifted past as we followed a trail around a small lake. My son sat down on a log and wound grass around a twig. I thought of Huckleberry Finn. Our senses awakened by the scent and sight of wild flowers, blossoming trees and reflections in the water.
Forget-me-nots by the edge of the water made me hope that walks like this to and from school will one day become cherished childhood memories of being outdoors. Walks like this will nourish an active relationship with nature while they continue with their endless hours of screen time. Walks like this experiencing the outdoors will help them be calmer, smarter and happier as they learn to master virtual worlds.
Walks like this will teach them to become caretakers of our wild world and planet.
We really want kids to enjoy being in the outdoors and to care about nature, so it becomes part of their life as they grow up. The memories made as a child stay with you forever, and if outdoor places are part of these memories then hopefully children will grow up wanting to protect these special places for years to come.” Helen Meech, Assistant Director, Outdoors and Nature Engagement at The National Trust
Our nature walk from school reminded me of bygone eras when children embraced the outdoors. But I don’t just want it to be a past memory. I want it to be part of their present and their future. And, yes, we are lucky as the trails and landscape on our homeward journey are rather idyllic for a nature walk. But we also regularly visit forests and parks elsewhere in the countryside as I want their electronic lives to be balanced with nature.
As children grow older, their ‘electronic addictions’ increase. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.” Study quoted in the 2012 National Trust Natural Childhood report.
The natural environment can have profound effects on children’s development. But sometimes for me the benefits are the simple things such as watching my twins’ happiness grow on a walk in the great outdoors.
Do you have special memories of playing outdoors as a child or climbing trees or roaming freely or just being more connected to the natural world?
RESOURCES NOTE ON CHILDREN & NATURE:
If you would like to find out more about studies and research on the benefits of children being outdoors with nature then here are some articles and books with facts and lists of sources:
Resources page on the Children & Nature Network website includes collections of scientific literature, reports and surveys.
Richard Louv The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (Also on UK Amazon)
Richard Louv Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Also on UK Amazon)
The US Wilderness Society “9 Surprising reasons for getting kids outside this summer”
Getting back to the great outdoors by the American Psychological Association
Every Children Outdoors by the British nature organisation RSPB
Natural Childhood report by Britain’s National Trust
Why connect kids and nature by the US National Wildlife Federation