What rejuvenates you at the end of a demanding day?
Your answer is likely to align with your temperament (Are you an introvert? Extrovert? Some combination of both?), but some activities have universal appeal. Picture yourself tending a garden, walking through a forest, visiting a local park, or looking out over a view of an ocean, a river, a meadow, or up towards a mountain. Which one sounds right for you?
Only natural spaces are featured in our list above, and that’s deliberate. While built environments can certainly serve as spaces that calm and inspire, their restorative effect just doesn’t measure up to that of natural environments. And yet, in the span of a generation the amount of time that children and adults spend outside has dramatically declined. Place matters, and probably much more than we realize.
Having lived through this past year and a half, you are likely familiar with articles like this one exploring the complicated relationship between children and the digital landscape. There was certainly much gained from virtual learning and opportunities to connect with others while socially distanced during the pandemic, but excessive screen time can sometimes unleash a slew of unhealthy behaviors and outcomes. Dubbed “problematic internet use” by the experts, studies are underway in the hopes of finding better ways to support children and families in building positive digital habits. One piece of the puzzle is already in place. We could all benefit from getting outside more often.
Florence Williams’ The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative reminds us that we need nature in order to thrive. Modern lifestyles and the far reach of technology have us spending most of our days indoors and we’re just beginning to understand the trade-offs. Put another way, humans need respite from the hurry and noise that clamor for attention day in and day out, and this rings just as true for small humans as it does for full-grown ones. Williams observes, “We are animals, and like other animals, we seek places that give us what we need. Given the opportunity, children will decamp to treehouses and build forts, wanting spaces that feel safe but with easy access to open run-around areas…Experts tell us these habitat preferences are remarkably consistent across cultures and eras.”
The list of benefits associated with playing outside is long (and this short article is a great introduction to that topic), but here are some of our favorites:
- Natural environments reduce anxiety and stress.
- Nature jumpstarts our sensory systems (visual, tactile, proprioception, etc.)
- Being outside increases attention span and ability to focus.
- Natural spaces support the development of social-emotional skills.
So how do we build positive screen breaks into our routine and begin logging more hours in the sunshine? Start small, and don’t wait until tomorrow. Summer is a great time to get everyone outside for restorative activities that connect children (and grown-ups) to their surroundings in a meaningful way and provide for some of our most basic needs.
Ready to try a few?
- Climb a Tree
- Learning to take on manageable risks carries many benefits. Children gain a deeper understanding of their own strengths, limitations, and sense of self, to name a few.
- Let the Kid Guide
- It’s important to show children that we trust them to sometimes take the lead in explorations and adventures of their own design. You might be surprised by what they find.
- Make Time for Outdoor Free Play
- Outdoor spaces, big or small, invite children to experience the world with all of their senses and provide many outlets for following their curiosity.
- Watch Squirrels, or Birds
- Observing local and familiar wildlife can be a fascinating entry point into the power of inquiry and the discovery of secret worlds just beyond a child’s doorstep.