It almost seems silly to be writing this post because as human beings we have an intuitive sense that being outside is good for us. That feeling you get when you inhale fresh air is a reminder that we benefit from regular contact with nature. But gut feelings aside, the mountain of research building is proving what we already know: nature is good for both our mental and physical health.
As children we are happiest during those moments of unstructured play outdoors. Perhaps the most profound moment I have witnessed regarding the impact time in nature has on childhood happiness was at a children’s health conference I attended in 2010. The speaker asked all participants to envision their most vivid, happiest memory from childhood. She asked us to bring it back to life by imagining where we were, who we were with and what it felt like. Then she asked us to stand if that place was outdoors. The entire room full of hundreds of participants all stood on mass. It was to say the least hugely revealing. My favourite childhood memory was at a nearby green space where my brother, my friend Chris and I were building a fort from scraps of wood and branches we found laying around. Since recalling that memory I can think of many adventures the three of us got up to and each one was outside. Being outside is where we develop our sense of mastery of our environment. Outdoors most often is where we have our first important childhood adventures that form some of our core memories.
It was after this conference that I really began to think about the importance of nature in childhood. In my work in Public Health I worked hard to influence schools and communities to think about access to nature for the children they served. Inspired by Colin Harris, an outdoor educator who ran across Canada to increase the awareness of the benefits of nature for children, I brought Colin’s Take Me Outside challenge to area schools in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark Counties. We were even able to have Colin stop at some of these schools to meet with students along his run. Now after many twists and turns, and while raising my two boys I am able to offer opportunities for children to experience the lure of the great outdoors. To put their feet in the dirt, feel the breeze on their skin and witness the delight of nature all around them. I created Eat, Grow, Play Nature Camp because I believe in the value of connecting children to nature.
- Children are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago. (Juster et al 2004); (Burdette & Whitaker 2005); (Kuo & Sullivan 2001)
- Today, kids 8-18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). (Kaiser Family Foundation)
- In a typical week, only 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own. (Children & Nature Network, 2008)
- Children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005; Ginsburg et al., 2007)
- Sixty minutes of daily unstructured free play is essential to children’s physical and mental health. (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008)
- The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11. (Wells and Lekies, 2006)
Regular access to the outdoors has an important impact on all areas of childhood development: intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical. When we think about how children are able to move, run, jump, leap, roll, and skip through the outdoors we understand how the outdoors enhance the development of of children’s gross motor skills. Creativity in children is also enhanced by nature. Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas and that cooperative play is increased outside. Play in nature is especially important for developing problem-solving skills as children navigate the challenges they experience outside. More time spent outdoors is related to reduced rates of nearsightedness, also known as myopia, in children and adolescents
Children who have regular contact with nature benefit from improved cognitive functioning (including increased concentration, greater attention capacities, and higher academic performance), better motor coordination, reduced stress levels, increased social interaction with adults and other children, and improved social skills. Because of these findings researchers are now making the link between children’s reduced contact with nature and increased rates of ADHD.
The impact of being outdoors on stress reduction is perhaps the best understood health benefit in the research. The reason for this is that the impact of reduced stress happens immediately upon stepping outside and so it’s very easy to measure and attribute to the change in environment. In my 10 years work in Public Health Nursing much of my work was focused on tobacco use prevention. I worked with many individuals trying to quit smoking. If you know anyone who has tried to quit you will know that it’s one of the hardest, most stressful challenges one can face. People who smoke are typically very good at taking an outdoor break throughout their day at regular intervals. Yes the nicotine in the cigarette was helping to reduce perceived stress levels in these adults but so too was the very act of stepping outside. I would coach people to continue getting outside for these breaks to help combat their daily stress as they went through the quit process.
The complex web of factors that play into the effect of nature on our immune system is profound however researchers are beginning to pinpoint certain elements that contribute to this benefit. Certain trees excrete enzymes that when inhaled by humans cause a stress reducing effect in the body. When we breathe in the fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.
All the research being done today is helpful to demonstrate the importance regular access to outdoors has on childhood development, health and happiness. If we are attuned we can witness the feeling of our bodies naturally decompressing, relaxing and reintegrating with our natural rhythm every time we step outside. Children who spend time in nature develop an appreciation for the beauty and power of nature and become more likely to work to protect nature. For me personally, that’s benefit number one and was a significant motivator behind creating Eat, Grow, Play. A place for children to get outside, connect with nature, and learn where their food comes from.
Full March Break Camp details are available here.