Updated: Mar 1, 2020
There is something really simple you can do today to improve your child’s development, health and success: take them outside to connect with nature together with you.
For a large number of us spending time in nature as a child is a fond memory. Riding bikes, exploring rocks, finding insects, climbing trees or simply just being outdoors playing games with friends. Little did we know at the time that this enjoyment and play was developing our brains, bodies and personalities, not just for those years but for later life too.
We are increasingly aware that today's children don't have these kinds of memories due to a significant decline in the amount of free time children spend outdoors. A knowledge of surrounding natural environments and a connection with the cycles of the earth are no longer part of their everyday survival, routine or enjoyment. Unless you have a personal interest in nature and the outdoors you and your children may both go long periods of time without it and even build up reservations or lose confidence in how to engage with it.
" The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out – and an interest in the natural world doesn’t grow as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it." Sir David Attenborough
But does this harm your health? Introducing Nature Deficit Disorder
Concerns about the amounting disconnect with nature were voiced by philosopher William James over a century ago through his work ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’. James radically suggested that the antidote to was to shun materialism, reawaken the senses and return to "a more profound primitive level".
Author Richard Louv later coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, in his work "Last Child in the Woods". The term describes the progressive effect of a detachment with nature and the diminishing access people have to natural open spaces, that can lead to adverse health consequences and behavioural issues. This is because we have an innate need, first called biophillia by Edward Wilson in his 1984 book 'Biophilia', to have access to natural spaces and a connection with the life and energy of the earth - it's in our DNA.
Programmes, like Forest School and Forest Bathing exist world-wide and counterbalance nature deficit disorder so that we can reap the benefits of natural outdoor environments on mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
The Benefits of Bringing More Nature into Your World
But what are the health benefits from spending more time in natural settings, or the potential harm from not doing so? Read on to find out some of the main issues.
1. Relieves Stress
School, work and home lives are fast paced, target focussed, highly competitive and externally driven. This type of lifestyle promotes unhealthy emotions stemming from feelings of inadequacy and being overwhelmed. Living in a constant state of trying to keep up and not feeling good enough damages mental health, increasing stress and depression, and also affects physical health, leading to increased blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones and suppressing your immune systems.
Time spent in nature can reduce your experience of stress which is felt in both the mind and body. When you are surrounded by nature stress is processed differently and it becomes more manageable. Consciously removing yourself from pressured environments gives you a chance to rest, reflect and restore your perspective, calm and balance. Natural environments are welcoming and have no expectations on you (unlike a meeting room or the family kitchen). There are no right or wrong experiences in nature, no instruction of how to engage with it and no judgement on how you use the space.
2. Encourages physical movement
A recent study by the World Health Organisation found 80% of 11- to 17-year-olds around the world are not taking enough physical exercise. The World Health Organization says children's health is being damaged as well as their brain development and social skills.
Being outdoors encourages physical wellbeing. Natural outdoor environments offer uneven and varied terrain, testing your stamina, agility, balance, flexibility and creativity to navigate. Being outdoors is to be without walls and fences, encouraging movement further and longer.
A Scottish study found activity levels were 2.2 times higher in a typical Forest School day than during a school day that included PE lessons.
The natural world is varied, unpredictable, and challenging. Unlike a highly controlled indoor play gym or P.E. lesson, nature offers the chance for children to push their own boundaries, take risks appropriate to themselves and the environment, and to truly find out what they may be physically capable of. When we achieve our chosen physical goals we can build our confidence and self-esteem. Our greatest learnings come from being just outside our comfort zone, where ‘mistakes’ and ‘failures’ arise. Similarly, some of our greatest achievements come from taking a risk and trusting our intuition.
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children's health (and also, by the way, in our own).”
3. Improves Attention and Focus
The current technology that surrounds us is designed to constantly attract our attention and keep us engaged. This can lead to over stimulation and mental fatigue, time spent in nature has the opposite effect.
A walk in the park or a decision to sit outdoors can reduce mental fatigue, refresh the mind, and refocus cognitive functioning to take on new tasks or existing tasks with new energy and perspective. When you are relaxed outdoors with your senses engaged you focus on the slow details of your surroundings, building patience and mindfulness skills. When you are mindful you are more present in the moment and this can be a beneficial mental break.
"In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience.”
4. Improves Medical Conditions and Immunity
Adults and children who spend more time outside are less likely to experience asthma, obesity and ADHD*.
Medical research has also discovered that inhaling plant derived compounds, known as phytoncides, can reduce the concentration of stress hormones and enhance the activity of white blood cells which are responsible for fighting infections and diseases**.
Vitamin D is a hormone made by the body through a chemical reaction that occurs when sun hits the skin. Vitamin D is required for the body to absorb calcium. People who are Vitamin D deficient are prone to numerous health issues, including rickets (in children) and osteoporosis (in adults). Time spent outdoors with skin exposed to sunlight is needed for the body to make Vitamin D. In Singapore, the Ministry of Health states that 48% of Singaporeans are deficient in Vitamin D and recommends a minimum of 5-30 minutes twice a week of sun-exposure along with adequate nutrition.
Being outdoors, with bright light and without the constrictions of walls and doors, has a positive impact on eyesight, allowing children to develop their distance vision and avoid myopia. Singapore developed its own campaign, ‘Keep Myopia Away, Go Outdoors and Play’ which was aimed at encouraging children to spend more time outdoors in the natural light to reduce the likelihood of myopia***.
Ian Morgan, a myopia researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, estimates that children need to spend around three hours per day under light levels of at least 10,000 lux (an indoor environment is often just 500 LUX) to be protected against myopia. This is about the level experienced by someone under a shady tree, wearing sunglasses, on a bright summer day.
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks’"
5. Improves sleep
After a day playing outdoors children are tired at the right time for the right reasons. Exposure to sunlight helps the development of a healthy circadian rhythm (do you remember being told to take your newborn for plenty of walks? Or how the scandinavians put their babies to sleep outdoors in boxes? It is natural for us to wake with the sun and sleep with the stars,
When engaged in outdoor physical activity in a natural setting all of the senses are activated in a gentle and natural way, creating a holistic experience which is tiring for all of the right developmental reasons. We find that after time spent at Forest School, or playing outdoors with friends at the Botanic Gardens in the afternoon, children often have a good meal and fall asleep without a fuss.
So how do you get your children outdoors and connecting with Nature?
See our blog "Find the Wild in Your Child" for ideas on how to get your kids outdoors without complaining.
Check out Orgayana, a family guide for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle in Asia.
Join Forest School and benefit from nature along with your child at our accompanied sessions, or drop-your child off with us and become part of our community for learning in nature.
* A Potential Natural treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence from a National Study (Taylor & Kuo, 2014) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/
** Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function (2010) Dr Qing Li https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/
*** The Myopia Boom: more in this article; https://www.nature.com/news/the-myopia-boom-1.17120
New to Singapore Kelly is an experienced Forest School practitioner from the UK. Kelly loves the outdoors, hiking and flapjacks (they're a kind of energy bar....). With experience in nature therapy, Kelly most loves the special moment of surprise and the wonder of discovery in a child when encountering something new for the very first time.