Do you ever wonder why kids light up when they’ve spent a day in the great outdoors? Or why children that grow up on farms have fewer allergies? Or why going camping for a weekend can help the whole family sleep more soundly?

 

Well, after nearly 40 years of nature-based research, we now have some concrete clues about the therapeutic benefits of nature connection. Bringing together the fields of medicine, sociology, epidemiology, and anthropology paints a clear portrait of how and why nature exposure can enhance children’s health.

 

Today, I offer up my 7 reasons why nature exposure makes for strong kids. Here they are:

 

1. Reduces Stress

 

Stress is brutal, and kids feel it too. With all the over-scheduling and structured activities that children face, it’s no surprise that kids are stuck in “flight or fight” mode. Add in hours each day sitting under fluorescent lights and behind desks and it’s the perfect storm for increased stress, out-of-control aggression, and rampant anxiety that we’re seeing in our youth. Letting children step outside to take a deep breath and engage in unfocused attention can help their central nervous systems mellow out and rejuvenate from the challenges of indoor living, schooling, and playing.

 

2. Diminishes Allergies

 

Seasonal and food allergies are no fun! But limiting children’s contact with nature is not the answer. The good old hygiene hypothesis of the early 20th century promoted a separateness between people and nature. But limiting exposure to potential allergens in early childhood can make allergies worse. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics took a U-turn on peanut allergy guidelines, and now recommends introducing peanuts at 4 months of age rather than waiting until 9-12 months. This was after research showed that waiting to introduce (peanut) allergens may make allergy symptoms worse. So, instead of withholding the natural world from children, perhaps it’s time we re-natured kids.

 

3. Controls Asthma

 

Children exposed to air pollution in cities have more frequent and intense asthma attacks than kids who live in the country. And although some conflicting evidence about nature exposure and childhood asthma does exist, we do know that children who have direct contact with nature experiences at an early age, will have greater respiratory resiliency than kids who don’t.  Of course, pollens, grasses, and molds can worsen some children’s asthma symptoms, but getting young children outdoors early may help prevent the onset of asthma.

 

4. Strengthens Immunity

 

Kids that grow up on farms are exposed to animals, dirt, and poop daily. And it turns out, their immune systems are stronger because of it. Children’s developing immune systems were meant to be challenged. Keeping our kids’ too clean has turned out to be a really bad idea. That’s why relative to urban living children, farm kids tend to have more balanced and robust immune systems with far fewer bouts of atopy and respiratory issues.

 

5. Decreases Childhood Obesity

 

Nearly 30% of American children are obese. That means literally 1 in 3 children have a higher chance of developing chronic inflammatory diseases later in life simply because of being overweight. Allowing children to embrace the outdoors with unstructured free play can help them increase muscle mass, burn more calories, and reduce inflammation. So, let’s encourage kids to get away from the screens, and instead put on their running shoes.

 

6. Boosts Digestion

 

So many children these days are suffering from digestive issues. Some complain of food sensitivities, others experience constipation, and many have chronic abdominal pain. Most of these conditions can be improved by letting kids dig in the dirt and run in the fields. Soil is loaded with beneficial microbes that help support digestive functioning and physical movement in nature can promote healthy gut motility.

 

7. Restores Sleep

 

Looking for a restful night’s sleep? Roll out the family sleeping bags and sleep under the stars. Recent research has shown that going camping helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms. This syncs children’s sleep patterns with the natural day and night cycles. In fact, even after they get back home from camping, kids will tend to fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer.

 

 

Sources:

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. CPL bibliography, 30(4), 433-452.

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.

Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.

Stothard, E. R., McHill, A. W., Depner, C. M., Birks, B. R., Moehlman, T. M., Ritchie, H. K., … & Wright, K. P. (2017). Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend. Current Biology.

Togias, A., Cooper, S. F., Acebal, M. L., Assa’ad, A., Baker, J. R., Beck, L. A., & Fleischer, D. M. (2017). Addendum guidelines for the prevention of peanut allergy in the United States. Pediatric Dermatology, 34(1), 5-12.

Wells, N. M., & Evans, G. W. (2003). Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and behavior, 35(3), 311-330.

Wood, C., Bragg, R., & Pretty, J. (2016). The benefits of green exercise for children. Green Exercise: Linking Nature, Health and Well-being, 46.

 

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