How important is it to have time in nature?
Children today are having less and less contact with nature and this is affecting their health and well being.
‘The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.’ – Richard Louv
Richard Louv is author of ‘Last Child Left in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder’. As a result of his book the Children and Nature Network was established (http://www.childrenandnature.org) to counter the adverse effects of children spending large amounts of time indoors.
‘In the UK 64% of kids play outside less than once a week, 28% had not been on a country walk in 2009, 21% had never been to a farm, 20% had never climbed a tree’.  The study of 2,000 eight-to-12-year-olds, is one of a series of studies that reveal that more children can identify a Dalek than an owl, with a large majority of children playing indoors more often than out. ‘The distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s; 43% of adults think a child shouldn’t play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. More children are now admitted to British hospitals for injuries incurred falling out of bed than falling out of trees.’ 
What are the benefits of nature?
Walking in a park or natural green surroundings has been shown to be as effective for treating hyperactive children as ADHD medications. A study from the University of Illinois found that a 20 minute walk in green surroundings gave improvements on a par with a daily dose of drugs for ADHD. The children showed significant improvements in concentration levels after what researchers called ‘a dose of nature’.
The researchers took 17 hyperactive children on three walks in a park, town centre and residential area. The children stayed off their medication on the day so researchers could be sure any benefit was from the environment alone. The children were tested on their powers of concentration after each walk.
After strolling in green areas, their scores were improved by as much, if not more than, when they took prescription drugs. But, interestingly, the same children did not get any benefit from walking through town centres or residential streets.
‘Our children no longer learn how to read the great book of Nature from their own direct experience or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes.’ Wendell Berry, a US author and poet.
Research is showing that children should spend time in nature, both for their physical but also their psychological and emotional wellbeing. An excellent summary of the benefits of nature has been compiled by Parks Victoria. You can read their research in which they found over two hundred studies that showed contact with nature makes people physically and mentally healthier.
Planet Ark have come up with some practical solutions as part of their ‘Speak for the Trees’ National Tree Day Campaign
Making outdoors a habit can be easy if you know how. Here is a list of simple ideas to try, adapt and add to, and many of them you can do right in your own backyard. These groups and activities are suitable for kids of all ages, so join your children and get outdoors!
- Try a night walk. Bring a torch for fun and safety, but be sure to turn them off for listening to the nature sounds and stargazing.
- Go on a nature walk. Smell flowers or hug a tree. Look for animal footprints. Watch insects. But remember, soaking up the smells, sounds and sights is sufficient, and leave only footprints behind.
- Get outside. First, set up any outdoor space you have access to so that it’s inviting, and spend time outside with your child. A sandbox, wading pool, swing, climbing structure or garden will keep your child entertained for hours. But if permanent structures aren’t possible, think impermanent: A tablecloth teepee or a bucket of water with funnels and cups, or a shovel to dig a hole you can later refill.
- Plant a native tree. Together, take responsibility for your tree or shrub. Care for it, and you and your child will reap the satisfaction in the months and years to come.
- Grow a herb garden. This could be a window box, or be included in a vegetable patch if you have the outdoor space. Choose plants that your child will eat and enjoy, and especially those that develop before your eyes. For example, herbs are generally quick to mature, and bush tomatoes change colour as they grow.
- Take your camera out into the backyard, a nature strip or a nearby park, and photograph areas of nature where you think animals might live. Take pictures of trees, leaves and grasses and see if you can name the plants/animals when you get home. By printing them off and sticking them into a book, your child can create their own story.
- Go on an adventure bike ride. Remember all your cycling safety, and simply enjoy riding in the fresh air.
- Go on a picnic. Pencil in your diary or on the family calendar one day to venture out into nature. Encourage your children to help pack the food, and discuss where it has come from. You could picnic at your local park, beach, river or even just in the back garden.
- Set up a colouring in and painting table. Ask your child to draw or paint a number of environmental images, including trees, rivers, and animals. You can also use leaves that have fallen off trees as stamps, by painting them and pressing onto paper. If you can, doing this outside is perfect. See your child’s interpretation of nature.
- Lend a hand in the garden. If you do have a garden space, ask you child to assist with raking leaves and pulling weeds. Check out if you have a community garden in your local area by searching on Communitygarden.org.au.
- Take an indoor toy outdoors. Introduce your child’s favourite toy, game or book to nature.
- Create an obstacle course. This could be indoors or outdoors, and you could use trees to run around, a pile of leaves to jump over, a stick ladder on the lawn.
- Create a collection of nature objects. Try and collect one item each day. It could be as simple as a leaf or a stone. Use each object to tell a story – perhaps about where it came from and what or who it has come across before reaching your hand. Although make sure you don’t take anything from a National Park, or any animal’s homes.
- Visit a local look out, hill or mountain. See the world from a different view. Talk about how birds and animals see the world differently to us. Discuss what the world might look like for a magpie, and how it might seem for an ant. If it’s safe, roll down the hill – careful not to get too dizzy!
- Watch the sunrise or the sunset. Find a natural environment to watch the sunset. If you aren’t by the sea or a river, you could watch the sun rise or fall behind a tree in the local park.
- Make a grass trumpet. Pull a blade of grass (making sure it’s clean) and put it between your lips. Press your lips and blow out, trying to push the air out of your mouth. It will make a squeaky, trumpet-like sound kids will love and be fascinated by.
- Go camping. Set a date to go camping with your family. There are great options for hiring camping gear if you don’t have the resources (time/money/storage space) to own it.
- Look for shapes in the clouds. Sit down and create a story. As the clouds change, the story will evolve.
- Create a nature mystery bag. Find a box and put in a collection of nature objects, with different textures and shapes. Ask you child to guess what it is, and discuss where it’s come from. Next time they’re outside, ask them to collect some natural items (safely – or with the assistance of another adult), for them to create a mystery box for you.
- Start a nature journal. Ask your child to write down all their favourite things in nature. If there’s something they’ve learnt about, but haven’t seen, add it to the list and try and find a time and place to catch a glimpse or make a visit. Use this to reflect as well. How did they feel when they saw it? Where were they, and who were they with? What was the weather like? Keep adding to the list, and watch it grow and change.
- Community Gardens – help provide fresh produce and plants, neighbourhood improvement, a sense of community and connection to the environment.
- Family Nature Clubs (Western Australia) – help families get together and enjoy the beautiful state of Western Australia and each other’s company, and encourage kids to enjoy the benefits that unstructured outdoor play can bring.
- Girl Guides – is open to all girls and young women and aims to enable them grow into confident, self respecting members of the community.
- Green Gym – is a program, mainly operating in Victoria, that engages people (ages 30-70) in practical conservation activities to benefit participants’ health and wellbeing, as well as the environment.
- National Green Jobs Corps – is an Australian Government training program for people aged between 17 and 24 years that provides young people with a combination of work experience, skill development and accredited training to ensure they are ready for employment in emerging green and climate change industries.
- Junior Landcare – encourages young people to play an active role in ensuring the safe future of their environment.
- Nippers – enables children to become confident and have fun in a safe beach environment. For Nippers, the beach is the classroom.
- Scouts – provides young Aussies, aged 6 to 25, with fun and challenging opportunities to grow through adventure.
Eco parenting is currently developing an innovative, engaging and interactive 3D ‘look inside the human body’. This 3D pilot will demonstrate a child’s wellbeing and the links to diet, lifestyle and environment. If you would like to support this project and receive a one on one consultation with Jane Hanckel and a signed copy of her book then please click here.