Close your eyes and think about a special place where you enjoyed passing the time as a child. What was it that made this place special to you?
Anytime this question has been posed my memory always reverts to an outdoor, natural space from my childhood. Whether it was getting inexplicably lost in the small patch of woods next to my friend’s house that I swear spanned acres or hunkering down to sip the sweet honeysuckles from the bush at the end of my driveway, natural spaces were where I found and continue to find my solace, my salvage.
I wasn’t raised by wolves, in fact quite the opposite during my suburban New Jersey upbringing. I didn’t grow up going camping or hiking and bought my first tent after graduating from college. What attracts me to nature is the opportunity to become acutely present in my surroundings fully consumed by my flooding senses. It is in nature where I can observe how things grow, how they move and how they change. As a child, I discovered principles about the objects that I found (Did it float? Would it break?) and through the process learned a little bit about myself (Could I climb it? Would it break if I did?).
Some may argue that we’re hard wired for nature, that we have an internal bearing to the rhythms, patterns and energy of the natural world. If that’s true, what happens when we lose our connection to nature?
Research shows that children are spending less time outside today than their parents did. Youth spend an average of ten hours a day on electronic technology coupled with a suite of scheduled lessons and activities all contributing to what Richard Louv has affectionately coined “nature deficit disorder”. This lifestyle shift has resulted in significant gains in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder and impaired social skills. A new study reports that the annual cost for childhood diseases associated with environmental toxins and behaviors is estimated at $76.6 billion annually. This cost does not yet factor in the expenses related to the impacts of air quality, water quality, and restoration and mitigation for environmental projects on our national and local budgets.
We innovate. We attempt to fix or control our environment to solve our environmental problems. Most often the solutions that we introduce have their own set of expensive and necessary retributions. Consider the river that was dredged in the 1960’s because of flood related issues. Consider how what seemed like an economical and ecological solution at the time currently threatens vital salmon rearing habitat now?
Spending time in nature as children prepares us, among other things, to spend a lifetime taking care of our place. The reason why I am an environmental steward is because of the intimate relationship that I have developed with the natural world over my years. My connection to the natural world influences my personal behaviors, professional pursuits and drives my commitment to stewarding our use and protection of natural resources.
The best opportunity that we have to address our mounting environmental challenges is to expose youth to the natural world early and often. Although this is challenged by the aforementioned reasons, the polarization of “environmental” issues in our country, and the pessimistic view of our degrading planet, there are many organizations and movements committed to our reconnection with the natural world and our hope for a more livable future.
Following is a summary of the many benefits that regular play in nature has for children:
▪ Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature (Taylor et al. 2001).
▪ Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The greener, the better the scores (Wells 2000, Taylor et al. 2002).
▪ Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often (Grahn, et al. 1997, Fjortoft & Sageie 2001).
▪ When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills (Moore & Wong 1997, Taylor, et al. 1998, Fjortoft 2000).
▪ Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle 2002).
▪ Nature buffers the impact of life’s stresses on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits (Wells & Evans 2003).
▪ Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying (Malone & Tranter 2003).
▪ Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world (Crain 2001).
▪ Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder (Cobb 1977, Louv 1991). Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning (Wilson 1997).
▪ Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other (Moore 1996).
▪ Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children (Moore 1986, Bixler et al. 2002).
▪ Outdoor environments are important to children’s development of independence and autonomy (Bartlett 1996).
▪ Play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of children development more readily than indoor environments (Moore & Wong 1997).
▪ An affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of regular contact with and play in the natural world during early childhood. Children’s loss of regular contact with the natural world can result in a biophobic future generation not interested in preserving nature and its diversity (Bunting & Cousins 1985; Chawla 1988; Wilson 1993; Pyle 1993; Chipeniuk 1994; Sobel 1996, 2002 & 2004; Hart 1997; Wilson 1997, Kals et al. 1999; Moore & Cosco 2000; Fisman 2001; Kellert 2002; Bixler et al. 2002; Kals & Ittner 2003; Schultz et al. 2004).
- David Sobel
- Reducing The Staggering Costs Of Environmental Disease In Children, Estimated At $76.6 Billion In 2008 (Leonardo Trasandel and Yinghua Liu)
- The Children & Nature Network
- Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative