Children’s Exposure to Nature Boosts Health and Education

The following post was written by Jenny Friar, Director of Development for St. Joseph’s Villa:

The natural environment constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence.  It is an essential, critical, and irreplaceable part of healthy maturation and development.              

                                — Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, Yale University

If you spent time out of doors as a child, then you will already know intuitively much of what I’m about to say.  For those who did not, or who may have forgotten, here are a few prevalent findings about the benefits of the natural environment on children’s development, which I recently had the pleasure of presenting to members of the Three Chopt Garden Club.

Much of the research I have done on the subject boils down to one simple statement: Nature is good for human beings, especially children.

Over the last 15 years, an increasing number of studies have set out to prove this and to quantify and better understand just how good. These studies have often intersected with, and resulted from other studies which seem to conclusively demonstrate that children spend a decreasing amount of time with in nature.  There are myriad reasons that affect children of different socio-economic backgrounds – no available supervision, no access to a natural environment, over-scheduling, safety concerns, and increased time with media among others.  However, the result is largely the same – a 25-50% decrease in the amount of time spent outdoors by 6-10 year olds over the last 20 years.

The good news is that the more we discover and understand the significant benefits of exposure to nature and unstructured play and exploration, the more that parents, schools, and even pediatricians, are working to reverse this trend.   While some benefits of outdoor learning and play seem obvious – such as physical exercise and learning team work – others are less so, but just as important.  The following are my top 3 unsung reasons why kids need to spend time outside:

  • Learning the life cycle and understanding death.

A healthy understanding of the beautiful fragility of life and the permanence of death begins for children in nature. Their observation of the life cycle of plants and animals allows them to learn the serious and reverent business of life and death, and their own impact.  It feels good to save an earthworm from a puddle, it feels bad to squeeze a firefly and extinguish its’ glow.  We can help or harm, but we cannot, unlike a video game, bring back a living creature once dead.

  • Restoring concentration, focus, and calm.

Forced attention is one of the most taxing things we can ask our brains to do, but it is a key factor for modern success in school or work.  Over the last decade Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has become one of the fastest growing mental health diagnoses for children and young adults. The most common prescription is for a stimulant that will mitigate symptoms.  Researchers are finding, however, that nature breaks – such as 20 minute walks several times a day – do as much to relieve symptoms as medication.  These breaks give the brain a chance to engage in involuntary focus – the kind of focus when your attention is grabbed by the sound of a bird or leaves crunching, or by the site of a tree branch moving in the wind.  This involuntary focus is the antidote to forced concentration and works wonders for “refocusing”.  

  • Populating our microbiotawith the beneficial bacteria that keep us healthy

As scientists begin to understand the microbial world inside our bodies, the crucial implications for health become clearer.  A healthy and balanced microbial diversity in the gut is now thought to be critical to regulating the immune system, metabolic system, allergies, healthy weight, disease, and even neurotransmitters.  Exposure to bacteria in nature and to fibrous, unprocessed foods, is one of the best ways to increase the biodiversity of our microbiota and potentially steer clear of many “Western” diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.

At St. Joseph’s Villa we are able to use our historic 82-acre property as a living classroom, learning laboratory, and place to explore, for both academic and therapeutic programs.  Our students and clients, many of whom have very little exposure to nature at home, have a chance to reap the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social benefits that we know can make a tremendous difference in their lives.  We also have a 7,500 square foot garden where students learn to grow, harvest, and prepare, nutritious, seasonal fruits and vegetables.  Interested in tasting some of the food we grow or learning more about the Villa and programs?  We’d love to show you around!

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