Children in Nature: Nurturing Wellness and Promoting Learning

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In the face of large amounts of time spent indoors and widespread use of devices and screens, many families are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of spending time outside. As a society, our family lives have become so over scheduled that little time remains for children’s unstructured, creative play in nature. “Nature-deficit disorder” is a label first coined by Richard Louv (2005) in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.1 This term is loosely used to describe the negative impact of decreased contact with nature on the healthy development of children. Louv proposes that fewer opportunities to experience unstructured free play in the outdoors have led to increased rates of childhood obesity and attention-deficit disorder, as well as impaired social skills and alterations in mental health. Though the majority of Louv’s claims about “nature-deficit disorder” are based on his own personal observations, there is a significant and growing body of research which validates his claims.

Richard Louv suggests that we all must take time spent in nature seriously. Evidence is continually developing to support his claim that contact with nature is just as important to a child’s development as is good nutrition and adequate sleep. Louv urges us all to take this evidence into account to evaluate and address the current trends in children’s access to nature. Louv perhaps says it best in his statement, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”

Allowing children to form a strong relationship with nature has a multitude of proven benefits and outcomes:2 3

  • Behavioral and Socio-emotional
    • Improves self-confidence
    • Improves self-awareness
    • Improves self-discipline
    • Reduces disruptive behaviors
    • Boosts motivation
  • Attentional and cognitive
    • Increases capacity to pay attention
    • Improves memory and ability to recall
    • Reduces impulsivity and hyperactivity
    • Promotes learning and engagement
    • Boosts creativity
  • Physical Fitness and Health
    • Encourages physical activity
    • Improves immunity
    • Boosts Vitamin D levels
    • Raises serotonin levels
    • Decreases stress hormones

This wide array of encouraging evidence, which connects access to nature to important developmental outcomes, is already being applied in many childcare and educational settings. One elementary school teacher explains,

“Kids have to touch, and see, and discover for themselves, in order to really learn something. Learning should be about joy. If you can be outside, you can begin to absorb that kind of joy of the world around you. In fact, what happens is much richer learning, and you get what learning really should be, which is the involvement of children in the process of learning.”4

Researchers, parents, and teachers are all beginning to take notice of this crucial factor in children’s development. Although efforts are being made to incorporate more time with nature in children’s daily lives, there is still much progress to be made.

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1 Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (1st ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

2 Spencer, C., & Blades, M. (2006). Children and their environments: Learning, using, and designing spaces. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

3 Bergland, C. (2019, March 18). 8 Eye-Opening Ways Kids Benefit from Experiences with Nature. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201903/8-eye-opening-ways-kids-benefit-experiences-nature

4 When learning comes naturally. Diamond, J., Wall, M., Child Development Institute (Bronxville, N.Y.) and Jonathan Diamond Associates (Directors). (2009).[Video/DVD] New York, NY: Jonathan Diamond Associates.

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