Childhood used to be filled with loads of outdoor time. Kids would spend countless hours each day climbing trees, swimming in ponds, and running through fields. But today’s children are bathed in technology and confined to indoor living, schooling, and playing.
This nature withdrawal appears to be taking a toll on children’s developing brains. Schools report low achievement rates and poor academic performance, while doctors are diagnosing more children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
If we take a more holistic perspective, we begin to see the myriad ways that nature can help improve children’s cognitive function. Here’s a run down of 9 ways nature exposure can boost kids brain power:
1. Improves Concentration
Physical activity alone is not enough to improve concentration in kids. Although movement helps, walking in a downtown street or a residential neighborhood has not been shown to improve concentration nearly as much as a walk in a “green” park. In other words, it is not just simply physical activity that improves a child’s ability to focus. It is physical activity in nature that matters most.
2. Controls Impulsivity
Impulsive behaviors are born from a place of unfounded and unrealistic expectations. When children spend too much time in an artificial or socially constructed world, they lose sight of what is real and what is not. Family and school nature outings can help curb impulsive and reckless behaviors by giving kids palpable and sensory-stimulating experiences.
3. Reduces Hyperactivity
Access to home gardens, neighborhood parks, and green play spaces reduces hyperactivity problems. And the opposite is true for urban or built environments. Recent research has shown that the greener the setting, in terms of tree cover and grass, the milder the symptoms of hyperactivity in children with ADHD. Field trips into the woods are truly therapeutic for children with attention disorders.
4. Increases Enthusiasm
Let’s face it, indoor life is kind of lame. Children can easily suffer from low motivation, fatigue, and brain fog when they spend all day sitting at a desk or in front of a screen. Allowing children ample time to play and explore in nature lifts children’s moods and creates feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and hope.
5. Fosters Cooperative Social Behavior
In over structured, indoor environments a pack of children can quickly turn to competitive and aggressive behaviors. The overabundance of bright lights and flattened play areas compels kids to push boundaries and challenge authority. But the open air and vast expanses of natural environments lends itself to team building, group cohesion, and cooperation among peers.
6. Stimulates Creativity
Nature is a blank canvas. Imagination and creativity arise from the “boredom” of unplugging. Time spent pondering and inquiring about flowing rivers, flying birds, and blooming flowers can fill the minds of children with vivid and fantastical imagery. As much as some kids are addicted to video games and television, the woods offer an unyielding field of open ended toys and multidimensional playscapes.
7. Teaches Natural Consequences
The natural world has its own systems of checks and balances. If a child falls into a puddle they get wet. If they pick up poison ivy, they may get itchy, blistery welts. And if they brave a night of outdoor camping, they get the reward of a starry night sky. Behaviors in nature have “natural consequences”, all of which are neither right or wrong. Instead of performing behaviors and looking for positive or negative outcomes, children instead learn to adapt to ever-changing situations and build skills of resiliency.
8. Encourages Compassion
Contact with domestic and farm animals can open children’s hearts. Recent research suggests that kids who care for and interact with farm animals on a regular basis display more signs of kindness, compassion, and respect for living things than kids who don’t. Getting out to the farm is not only fun, but mentally and emotionally enriching for kids.
9. Enhances Memory
Greenery around schools improves school performance. When children have more bushes, shrubs, and trees surrounding their school buildings, they have been shown to have greater working memory, higher test scores, improved graduation rates, and increased likelihood of attending college. It’s as if the greenery helps children filter out all the noise and have more mental bandwidth to remember the things that matter most.
Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. CPL bibliography, 30(4), 433-452.
Landrigan, P. J., & Etzel, R. A. (Eds.). (2013). Textbook of children’s environmental health. Oxford University Press.
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.
Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009). Childhood development and access to nature: A new direction for environmental inequality research. Organization & environment, 22(1), 99-122.
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