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It's only natural

Ensuring kids connect with nature enhances health and well-being

Ensuring kids connect with nature enhances health and well-being

BY LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Health Region
Published Thursday June 30, 2011

Most of us folks over the age of 30 grew up with parents who had no difficulty telling their children to "Go play outside!" Some even recall their parents adding in the comment, "And don't come back till supper!"

Things have changed to be sure. Many parents no longer feel safe sending their children outdoors to play; residential streets are no longer filled with kids skipping rope, playing tag or hide and seek. Instead the vast majority are "plugged in" to the internet, instant messaging, playing video games or watching television. The result of this shift in lifestyles is clear. Children and adolescents have never been so physically inactive, obese or prone to depression and anxiety.

Certainly there are a number of factors at play, however, there is a growing movement of experts and caregivers who are concerned about this shift and are setting out to make some positive changes.

So what is it about being outdoors and engaging with nature that is so important in childhood? Study after study has shown that children who spend more time outdoors and engaging with nature benefit by having increased opportunities for movement, creativity, problem-solving, increased empathy, stress reduction, increased imagination and enhanced ability to focus linked to better performance in school. 

Of particular value is unstructured, outdoor free play. Once again, this is in sharp contrast to the structured sports and programmed activities that most children are involved with these days. Free play outdoors allows children to practice developing a variety of skills that will serve them well in life such as how to work together to accomplish a goal like building a fort. Outdoor free play stimulates imaginations and encourages children to think beyond rules and scores; they learn how to solve problems, taking the time to think things through and try alternatives. Experts also point to the rich opportunity to use all of our senses when outdoors; seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and touching the wonders of nature.

Of course, being outdoors encourages all of us to be more physically active, breathing fresh air as we take on new challenges by walking that extra block or going canoeing for the first time. Increased physical activity, especially in nature lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, lowers body fat, improves bone and muscle strength and lowers stress.

Many families are living with the challenge of children who are anxious, moody and have a difficult time focusing. There is some evidence that "nature therapy" has proven helpful to some children by helping them to feel more calm, in control and content. 

The Nature Action Collaborative for Children is a worldwide movement that is committed to re-connecting children with nature. There are a number of local advocates of the movement who have formed the Manitoba chapter with memberships including early childhood educators, naturalists, teachers and others.

Their enthusiasm and commitment to the cause has spawned a variety of incredibly creative ideas such as a two-week outdoor childcare project with the whole day spent outdoors. Perhaps the Norwegian saying "there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing" would prove helpful here. One staff member of the outdoor program marvels at the children's love of the neighbourhood creek. "Our kids wade barefoot in the cool waters . . . they climb the trees . . . they catch frogs and float makeshift boats down its small rapids. It's a magical place."

Richard Louv, journalist and author of the book Last Child in the Woods first published in 2005, coined the provocative term, "nature-deficit disorder" to describe what he encountered in children across the United States and the effects of their disconnection to nature. The research that was gathered for the book not only highlights the benefits to children, it goes on to say that children's engagement with the outdoors is necessary for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. The latest edition of the book describes hundreds of actions that families and communities can take to build back the connection to the natural world.

If you ask people about their favourite childhood place to play, chances are most will recall a spot outdoors, underneath a tree, beside a rock, by a creek, in the park or on the farm.  And while there certainly are many more competing interests today, our children deserve to have that special place too or at least have the opportunity to explore that possibility.

So where can we begin the process of re-connecting with nature and providing our children rich opportunities to explore nature and reap benefits that the outdoors offers?

Begin by making some small changes. Initially, parents and caregivers will need to encourage and support children as they try new things outside. Go for a family walk in the neighbourhood and be sure to stop and take in the details. What kind of tree is this? Look at the colours of the blossoms, listen to that interesting bird call and feel the coolness of the grass. Even urban centres have pockets of nature if one takes the time to look closely. 

If you are not sure where to begin, explore outdoor spaces such as the zoo, Fort Whyte Alive, city and provincial parks such as the Living Prairie Museum or Beaudry Park. Why not check out the exciting new Nature Playground at Assiniboine Park featuring pathways, tunnels, sand and water play areas, rolling hills, a Children's Garden and a lookout crow's nest!  Some of these places will have programs or staff that can help to introduce you to the great outdoors in a fun way. Always dress for the weather, wear proper footwear (flip flops don't count) and bring a few supplies such as water, bug spray, sunscreen and a few snacks so that the nature trekkers are comfortable and happy.

Remember that the adventure does not need to be structured. Lay on a blanket and look at the clouds to see what shapes you can make out, climb a sturdy old tree and use it as a lookout or dig a small hole and look for earthworms. Just be open to the possibilities and enjoy the experience with the children in your life.  It's a cheapest way to have fun and create stories and memories, while enhancing your well-being.

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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