Why should we help children connect to the natural world? And how can we best do so? Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota Extension specialist and associate professor of pediatrics in the Medical School and Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, shared their thoughts on the subject at this week’s Frontiers in the Environment talk. Here are six things we learned:
Screen time is full time. Studies suggest that children spend up to 60 hours per week indoors. This mirrors the growing trend of being disconnected from natural world. As technological devices become more prevalent and children are becoming increasingly overscheduled, we’ve reduced the amount of time they’re spending outside.
Nature is important. Nature has been proven to be beneficial for children in almost all parts of their life. Not only does it help prevent obesity, reduce stress and build self-esteem, it can also help increase focus inside of the classroom. Moreover, cognitive functions, social skills, leadership and collaboration can all be improved by spending time outside. But the list doesn’t stop there. These are just some of the many benefits that children can gain by being connected with the natural world around them.
Never underestimate the benefit of a scraped knee. As a society, we’ve shifted our perception of risk. We’ve traded the physical risks of the outdoors in favor of the safety of the indoors. But it is important to recognize that this type of lifestyle carries its own types of risk, such as a reduced sense of community, lowered levels of self-confidence and many other psychological impacts. By spending less time outside, children are losing the opportunity to experience what they’re capable of. Falling and scraping your knee may hurt, but it also plays a fundamental role in childhood development by teaching kids about limits, danger and consequences.
Parental choices matter. Parents can help by getting outside and playing with their children. They can encourage free play and continue to emphasize play as children age. These experiences don’t always have to be adventurous trips to national parks. A trip to a local park or even playing in the backyard can be just as effective. Parents can also make intentional choices in other parts of life, such as where they send their children to school. They can also bond together to create groups that encourage outdoor play, such as the Family Nature Club.
Education and the environment don’t have to be an either-or. Instead of simply teaching about the environment, educators can use the environment to teach about all everything else. Known as the Environment as an Integrating Context model, this approach gets students actively engaged in what they’re learning. Students could read about a park while they’re sitting in it, or they could take inspiration from the outdoors to journal. Using the environment in this way also promotes transdisciplinary work, where teachers can work collaboratively across class boundaries.
It takes a village. True connections between children and nature will need more than individual actions. It will take a community effort. Policy-makers and planners can help by promoting green spaces. For example, Minneapolis has a goal of having every resident live within six blocks, or a 10-minute walk, from a park. This type of thinking and development can help re-create the bond between children and nature.
Like to learn more? Watch a video of the presentation here.