One of my passions in life is connecting children with nature. The outdoor world is a natural place for children to grow, learn and realize they are connected to something bigger. Unfortunately, humans have spent the last few hundred years slowly pulling away from nature, trying to dominate and control it instead of embracing the fact that we are a part of it. This is understandable to some degree because our ancestors biggest dangers were related to nature and they had a need to find safe barriers. But has it gone to far?
The latest generation has experienced the worst separation from nature. It is alarming how much time our children are spending inside. Being outdoors gives children a chance to explore and discover ideas, concepts, and life processes first hand. While outside they are experiencing life with all their senses. Surely our brain is more stimulated if, all at the same time, it is taking in the sounds of passing geese, the feel of wind on our cheeks, and the smell of rain in the air.
There is a natural connection that has evolved between people and nature. Things we need and only get by coming in contact with nature repeatedly. Microbes in the soil, pollen in the air… it makes me wonder if the increased rates of allergies and asthma in children (my children suffer from both) are related to our decreased time in nature. Of course there are studies and theories that show this issue is more complex than that, which we will not get into. Nonetheless, I think we can say getting children outdoors more frequently generally encourages healthy behaviors such as running, walking, jumping, and climbing! Inside we discourage wild behavior and encourage calmer, “more appropriate” indoor behaviors which leads to a lot of time sitting and watching shows or playing with interactive video games and computer screens.
Often it is us holding them back, as a parent I am the first to admit it. After a long day at work, who wants to go outside and play when we can keep them inside. This means we get to stay in as well and relax after work (LOL, that last part was sarcasm). As working parents there is so much we need to do in the house during the hours our children need to play outside. We need to find time to cook, clean, pack lunches, do laundry and bills. Most of these can’t be done outside. But I ask the question, in the long run which is more important? Can we balance better and make time for both? I have brought my laptop outside and sat on a chair doing bills while my kids ran around the yard playing on their own. Unstructured play in nature is something that is lacking the most. We do an okay job of taking our kids to the playground and signing them up for organized sports. But that is not what I am talking about here. It is unstructured time in nature that gives them the freedom to learn and develop on their own.
And of course the days of letting them go out on their own are gone, right? That is a good question. We fear the worst if we let them play outdoors on their own. But how do we expect them to learn about themselves if we don’t give them time to learn and explore on their own? I owe much of who I am to the time I spent wandering the woods alone as a child. Is there a way to watch at a safe distance? This has been my approach so far, watching from the window while doing dishes, taking my work outside and being nearby. There are options and ways we can help get them back outside. Hopefully the Children In Nature movement is getting the word out about the importance of getting our little ones back outside. As an environmental educator and now writer, I hope to do my part as well.