How Nature Makes Kids Calmer, Healthier, Smarter
The average fifth grader, given a choice, prefers to stay inside, close to electrical sockets and all the entertainment sources they power.
But your grandmother was right: Kids need fresh air and exercise. We all do. Families who find ways to be outdoors together nurture not only their bodies, but their connection to all of life -- and to each other. Kids who spend time outside in nature, research shows, are:
- Calmer -This is particularly important for ADHD kids because it lowers their need for medication, but fresh air soothes the senses of all children.
- Happier- Studies show sunshine, fresh air and physical activity all encourage good moods and reduce tendencies toward depression.
- Healthier - many kids who don't get enough time outdoors are Vitamin D deficient, causing health risks. Indoor air is also usually less healthy. And kids who play outdoors more even have better vision and less need for eyeglasses, presumably because they stare at screens less.
- Less likely to be overweight - Pediatricians recommend at least an hour of play daily during childhood to protect against obesity and diabetes.
- Better students- Research shows that kids who play outdoors actually have longer attention spans, more frustration tolerance, and do better in school. Kids even do better on tests if allowed to play first. It's not just that it gets their wiggles out. It's all that oxygen to the brain!
- More creative- Outdoor play is often less structured than what kids do indoors with technology, so kids exercise their imaginations as well as their bodies.
Did you grow up as I did, building dams in the stream, climbing trees, and chasing fireflies as the evening darkened? If you did, you'll agree with me that all children deserve those experiences.
Nowadays, though, when we try to send our kids outside, there's no one to play with. And many of us don't have yards. And we have to stay out there will them to keep them safe -- but we have to make dinner! And of course, kids would rather be inside with their screens. So most kids spend most of their time inside.
The answer? First, set up any outdoor space you have access to so that it's inviting, and spend time outside with your child. A sandbox, wading pool, swing, climbing structure or garden will keep your child entertained for hours. But if permanent structures aren't possible, think impermanent: A tablecloth teepee or a bucket of water with funnels and cups, or a shovel to dig a hole you can later refill.
Second, spend time as a family in nature -- hiking, playing tag, biking, simply walking together in a beautiful place. It allows your family to regroup and get back in sync like little else. It makes wonderful memories. And it's a great workout for everyone.
It doesn't have to be a big production. If you're lucky enough to have your own yard, you have unlimited options, from kicking a ball around to camping out in a tent. But every city has public parks, and every family can find something to do outside that feels fun. Two important ground rules:
- Turn off the cell phones. Yours. Theirs. Enough said, I hope! The world will be waiting for you when you get back. This is quality time to focus on family. Soon enough, your child will want to be with friends, not with you. Enjoy this time to connect.
- If you choose to engage in a sport, minimize the competition in favor of the fun. Make sure the rules are relaxed for little ones so everyone has fun.
If you're stuck for ideas, here are some suggestions:
1. Take a blanket, snacks and a ball or frisbee to the park. Play kickball or soccer or catch. Blow bubbles. Play tag.
2. Go on a family bike ride. This gets better and better as kids get older.
3. Go on a nature walk. Collect rocks or leaves. Look for animal footprints. Watch bugs. But remember, soaking up the smells, sounds and sights is sufficient. You don't need to take your child out of her heart and into her head by giving her a science lecture. If she asks questions, by all means follow her natural curiosity, and help her look up answers when she gets home. But sometimes watching a butterfly is more transformative than reading about it.
4. Send kids on a scavenger hunt.
5. Get wet! Give kids water and they'll find ways to play with it. Invite the neighborhood kids over for a water party. Set up the sprinkler and cut up a watermelon.
6. Try a night walk. Bring flashlights for fun and safety, but be sure to turn them off for listening to the nature sounds and star gazing.
7. If you have a safe place for a campfire, don't miss the opportunity to sit outside telling stories of when you were a kid, or what your kids did when they were younger. Sing songs. Roast marshmallows, make s'mores. Don't forget to just relax in silence and watch the fire.
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