Kids in the Outdoors: A Natural Pairing
By Brianne Markin, Beaver Creek Reserve
Chances are you have been hearing about the importance of getting kids outdoors and into nature. But why it is important? What are the actual benefits? And nature is pretty big, so what types of activities are best?
It seems pretty obvious that getting kids in nature is good for them. But the benefits might not be what you expect. According to the Child Mind Institute, when children play in nature it helps them build their confidence and boosts creativity and imagination. Kids can explore the environment, make their own observations, and with less structure they can create their own method of play. This is true for kids of all ages. While we typically think of preschoolers and early elementary age children, older kids and teens can benefit as well.
Various studies also show that spending time outdoors can help reduce stress. Parents have a lot to take care of, and it can sometimes be easy to forget that our kids feel stress too. Regardless of their age, children can be stressed about their school environment, grades, personal relationships, changes in their routines and more. Getting them out in nature helps remove some of the distractions that can cause stress. It is unclear as to how and why this happens. One theory is that there is an instinctual recognition by the human brain that nature is good for us, and things that are good for us typically affect our moods positively. Another theory is that there is an aromatherapy effect, that certain scents including the smell of flowers and pine needles reduce stress.
One of the more obvious benefits is when kids spend time outdoors they are more likely to be active. By getting kids moving, there are a slew of other benefits in addition to stress reduction, such as decreased fatigue and increased focus.
In Richard Louv’s groundbreaking book “Last Child in the Woods,” he explained that exposing kids to nature made them better thinkers. Kids are instinctively inquisitive. When you take your child out in nature they are likely to see new things and ask questions. Whether you know the answer or not, ask them a question back. “Why do you think that bird is carrying sticks?” “Why would that moth want to blend in with that tree?” As children think and learn about the environment, they will also grow to respect it, and hopefully one day protect it.
So now you know why it is important to get your kids out in nature, but what is the best way to do that?
For toddlers and preschoolers: Whether in your neighborhood, a park or a local forest area, ask basic questions. “What do you see?” “What do you hear?” “What color is that flower?” Kids are very tactile at this age. Give them things they can touch and smell. When possible, discourage them from picking things and taking them away from their original environment. Tips: beware of poison ivy. A good rule of thumb is “leaves of three let it be.”
For early elementary age (1st-4th grade): Make a scavenger hunt and walk in your neighborhood or other favorite greenspace. Watch a pond or creek and observe the plants and animals in it. Volunteer for a park cleanup. Hang up bird feeders and observe what comes to the feeders. Check out books from the library and try to find the animals or habitats from the books. Let them show you what they are learning.
For the tweens/pre-teens (5th – 8th Grade): Make a hiking challenge with friends. Try disc golf—you can still see lots of nature while playing a game. Go camping. Bike on a trail (where permitted). Go fishing. Find a way to blend social activities with getting outdoors.
High Schoolers: See the tips above. How about an Instagram nature challenge or nature photography contest? Take advantage of later bedtimes and see the stars. Have them plan a trip to a natural area and let them drive. There are lots of apps for identifying birds and plants. There are even apps for identifying and reporting invasive species. Instead of trying to compete with technology (though breaks from screens are good) find a way to incorporate it in to nature.
When in doubt, grab some comfortable walking shoes, a bottle of water and some bug spray, and hit the trails to feel the stress melt away!
photo by Ruth Forsgren