Children face a host of modern health challenges that were virtually non-existent a century ago. And at the same time, families are spending less and less time outdoors.
Rewilding childhood by giving children ample outdoor, unstructured free play can do wonders for their health.
Check out my top 7 kid health challenges that nature can help heal.
1. Childhood Obesity
Obesity in children is on the rise. Today, more than 17% of U.S. children are obese. Childhood obesity is highly preventable and makes children more susceptible to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic disorder as they age. Getting kids outdoors encourages greater physical activity and improves children’s digestion.
2. Depression and Anxiety
Mental illness is being diagnosed in children at younger and younger ages. The fastest growing market for antidepressant medications is now preschoolers! Yes, preschoolers. At startling as that is, it is clear that our children are feeling disconnected, disassociated, and distressed. Contact with nature helps children reconnect to a sense of creativity, optimism, and confidence.
Stress is rampant, and kids are not immune. Our fast-paced and technologically driven culture has given great weight to the “more is better” ideology. Many children are now feeling the burden of screen-time stimulation, over booked schedules, and performance driven demands. Taking daily “green time” in outdoor spaces allows kids to unplug from the busyness and tap into a sense of ease and awe.
4. Near Sightedness
One of the greatest side effects of screen time is nearsightedness. With a 66% increase in myopia (or nearsightedness) prevalence in U.S. residents since the early 1970’s we see that all that focused screen attention is making us lose sight of what matters most. Time in nature helps reduce rates of myopia in children by allowing for greater natural light exposure and for unfocused viewing over large distances.
Over 6 million children suffer from asthma in the U.S. And the simple truth is that direct contact with plants, animals, and soil in the earliest childhood years has been associated with lowered rates of asthma. It’s no wonder that rural farm kids suffer from asthma far less than their urban counterparts.
6. Sleep Issues
With most kids sitting in classrooms all day it’s no surprise that they’re suffering from insomnia. All that focused mental attention and lack of physical movement add up to a bad night’s rest. Encouraging children to explore natural landscapes helps balance cortisol (stress hormone) levels and makes for more calm nights.
Seasonal, food, and medication allergies are showing up everywhere. Every preschool parent I talk to is astonished how many peanut, dairy, soy, egg, or gluten allergies are popping up in their kid’s classroom. And seasonal allergies are a whole other thing! What we do know is that children that grow up near greater biodiversity have a higher diversity of skin and gut bacteria. These extra micro-critters help establish, regulate, and strengthen immunity in children.
Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. CPL bibliography, 30(4), 433-452.
Deckelbaum, R. J., & Williams, C. L. (2001). Childhood obesity: the health issue. Obesity research, 9(S11), 239S-243S.
Ege, M. J., Mayer, M., Normand, A. C., Genuneit, J., Cookson, W. O., Braun-Fahrländer, C., … & von Mutius, E. (2011). Exposure to environmental microorganisms and childhood asthma. New England Journal of Medicine, 364(8), 701-709.
EPA. 2015. Asthma Facts Sheet. Indoor Environments Division Office of Air and Radiation. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-10/documents/asthma_fact_sheet_eng_july_30_2015_v2.pdf
Finlay, B. B., & Arrieta, M. C. (2016). Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World. Algonquin Books.
Hanscom, A. J. (2016). Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. New Harbinger Publications.
Lees, K. 2015. Nearsightedness: Myopia Risk Reduced When Kids Play Outdoors More. Science World Report. http://www.scienceworldreport.com/articles/30066/20150916/nearsightedness-myopia-risk-reduced-when-kids-play-outdoors-more.htm