Updated: May 13, 2020
I was reading an interesting paper published in Frontiers in Psychology titled, Connectedness to Nature: Its Impact on Sustainable Behaviors and Happiness in Children by Barrera-Hernandez, Sotelo-Catillo, Echeverria-Castro, and Tapia-Fonllem (2020) and I felt a bit validated in my desire to encourage kids to get into the dirt, #hike, explore, play in the creek, and become familiar with all sorts of animals in their communities. It makes them happy!
In light of the issues our planet is facing into the future, these authors were interested in the sustainable behaviors of our children. They found that #children who are connected to nature have more sustainable behaviors and those who are more proecological, frugal, altruistic, and equitable have a greater perception of #happiness (Barrera-Hernandez et al., 2020).
Environmental issues are among the most significant issues our culture faces today and our children are an important player with the power to mitigate some of these challenges. Their relationship with nature is how they will ultimately cultivate a love for #MotherEarth and a sense of duty to protect her. Our society has largely become disconnected from nature so much so that we now have a scientific term, "nature-deficit disorder," to help define those who lack connection with the natural world or bond with other living beings (Howard, 2013). It is imperative that we are intentional about giving our children opportunities to connect with nature not just for the future of the #planet, but also for their own future health and well-being.
Children are Naturally Altruistic
Ever notice how #toddlers are so eager to help? They will scurry over to assist you in carrying a heavy load, pick up something you've dropped, or like my three-year-old daughter, they enjoy helping us get ready by combing our hair or finding our shoes. Psychologist, Michael Tomasello, has said that young children are truly cultural beings in that they are naturally cooperative and helpful. He also adds, "They do not get this from adults; it comes naturally."
This altruistic behavior, or selflessness, is thought to be reflexive. They help, inform, and share without expectation or desire for reward. A truly altruistic act is done completely for the benefit of another, without concern for oneself. More often it involves sacrificing something whether that is time or possessions, with no expectations of receiving anything in return. Many religions and cultures consider this a basic virtue. There are certainly scholars who will argue that altruism does not require personal sacrifice, because in doing good, everyone benefits.
As #children begin to mature, they gain a sense of shared intentionality or a sense of "we." This mutual understanding of expectations creates their sense of rights and obligations. They consider what is fair for them and fair for others, and they evaluate the impression they leave on others and whether this behooves them and their needs into the future. As parents, we want to instill a heart for nature and #animals at a very young age, so as they gain a stronger sense of self, identifying their own needs, their connection to nature remains and becomes an important priority.
Cultivating a Relationship with Nature for Wholeness
The benefits of nature for each one of us is truly beyond the scope of this post, or even this blog. They are without a doubt limitless and profound. We simply can't separate ourselves completely from nature and sustain a life of vitality. The literature is vast though, supporting why nature is good for kids, body and mind.
Although it's unclear how exactly nature plays a role in cognitive functioning and mood, it has been shown to build #confidence. Letting your child choose how he plays and interacts with nature means he has the power to control his own actions. This unstructured style of play also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They can think more freely, design their own activities, build, create, and approach the world in inventive ways. Nature also teaches responsibility. Forgetting to water a plant means it will not survive. Pulling flowers because you enjoy them, means you rob everyone else of that same pleasure. Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly. Pets are similar. They build compassion, empathy, and responsibility.
Urban environments require an attention that is very specific or directed. It forces them to ignore distractions and exhausts their brains. This type of attention is very demanding. In nature, an effortless type of attention is practiced, otherwise known as soft fascination, which creates a sense of pleasure rather than fatigue.
When our children are in nature, they acquire a number of beneficial bacterias that work to fight off pathogens that manifest disease. They also experience the benefits of #grounding by offering negative ions that cause disease to the earth, and acquiring ions that offer their bodies better balance. When in nature, our eyes and brains are offered stimulation which is more in line with their created purpose. When outside, the vast array of green and blue is calming to our eyes and the depth at which our vision spans towards the horizon, through the tops of the trees, and upwards towards the sky strengthens our eyes as opposed to staring at our electronic screens. Nature activates more senses - we see, hear, smell, and touch simultaneously. Being outside offers opportunity to escape the more #toxic air trapped indoors, and we move much more freely than when we are confined or sunk into the couch. Nature truly enriches the human experience.
Motivating Kids to Get into Nature
The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Studies have demonstrated that children who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than those who spend more time indoors. Admittedly, my kids do love riding their bikes and playing in the sandbox, even my teen kids, but getting them to go on a hike with me or onto the yoga mat can be tricky and fraught with whining. I do giggle though because in spite of their protests of having to join me, sometimes even while we are hiking, they are still skipping rocks, collecting walking sticks, climbing trees, doing yoga poses on fallen branches or large rocks, and sharing imaginative stories of how they could build homes within the fallen trees. Little Ruby can hike a four mile path without the slightest fuss, but those teen boys struggle just a bit.
Treasure hunts can be fun. Giving your kids a "shiny object" to search for can keep them distracted enough they barely notice they have been unplugged for more than a few minutes. Challenge them to find "something they can hold liquid in." My younger two love to collect rocks and their dressers and plants are full of their favorites. The bird sanctuary at Eagle Creek is quite beautiful and has wonderful trails. Helping them identify plants, birds, bugs, or various leaves, tress, or flowers is also fun. My kids kind of whine about this too, but they also take a bit of pride in finding familiar plants in our future hikes. It has been enjoyable for me to watch them recognize new sprouts this season as they become more mindful of their environment. We haven't really focused on bird calls yet, but into the future, this may be fun.
If you haven't done it already, be sure to add to your summer list-of-to-dos a U-pick adventure. Coming home with a basket of food that the littles have gathered on their own is both rewarding and motivates them to eat more fresh fruits and #vegetables. Every year since my first was born, we have canned our own tomato sauce, pickles, applesauce, jellies, and such. They all know how to plant and care for a garden, and this year we are working to create a nature park in the backyard as opposed to installing a new swing set. My plans are grander than my carpentry skills so I might have been a little overly optimistic, but I never shy away from a challenge. The kids have already been scavenging for rocks and tree stumps to integrate into our plan. My teenage son even texts me pintrest ideas for tree house we can build together!
For many years, most gifts I purchase for the kids are less about sitting and gaming, and more about learning or getting into nature. Bug boxes, magnifying glasses, shovels, and nature books are great ways to empower them into exploring the world around them. Parks in almost every city have some fun activities in nature, and most are free. We've attended puppet shows, craft activities, played in the creek, met interesting animals, and enjoyed musicals. The canal in downtown Indianapolis use to have live music every Wednesday evening which the kids really enjoyed.
Because my kids really do enjoy technology, this past year, I purchased an underwater camera and drone for them so they could create their own vlog. They were really loving DALLMD and admittedly, although I am not a fan of electronics prior to bed, these were relaxing to watch, which was probably due to the water rippling through their respirators and sound systems. We have spent time drawing in nature journals and #watercoloring our experiences, but I am excited to see them create video of their adventures.
As I mentioned above, when the social restrictions are lifted and we can once again hike with company, I invite you all to join our family on our nature hikes. We have planned several nature #crafts as well, that kids of all ages will enjoy. This past summer we visited a new park about every week and still have many more to explore! Indiana even has a few waterfalls.
Barrera-Hernandez, L. F., Sotelo-Castillo, M. A., Echeverria-Castro, S. B., & Tapia-Fonllem, C. O. (2010). Connectedness to nature: Its impact on sustainable behaviors and happiness in children. Frontiers of Psychology, 26. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00276
Howard, B. C. (2013). Connecting with Nature Boosts Creativity and Health. Washington, D.C: National Geographic.