A few weekends ago, my soon to be 9 year old son and I, went for a mid-day walk through a neighborhood that connects to ours. We chose that route because there are many more children there than in our little neighborhood. As we walked and talked about all the many flowers in full bloom, we realized no one was out, neither child nor adult on any of the three streets we went down. It was warm but not uncomfortably hot so we couldn’t help but wonder where everyone was.
I guess a kid’s life can be pretty busy these days, perhaps too busy. A description of constantly plugged in, over-stimulated, over-scheduled, and even stressed out is not a huge stretch for a large portion of today’s kids. Have we forgotten that children need opportunities for unstructured creative play and down time, to clear their minds and recharge their spirits? Have we forgotten that just outside our doors is a natural world full of WONDER. The essential connection to that wonder, if not made early in life, may never be made.
Most people, especially children, are spending significantly less time outside enjoying nature. If fact, a study conducted in 2004 showed that children were spending only half as much time outside as they did twenty years prior. This lack of time spent in nature negatively impacts our children, our families, our community and our environment. The term, Nature Deficit Disorder, coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods, asserts that spending less and less time outdoors results in a wide range of issues such as attention problems, obesity, anxiety and depression. The good news is that the cure starts in our own backyards.
There are so many benefits that come from exploring nature, such as the obvious physical activity and fresh air, but also the less obvious: becoming better stewards of the environment as our children begin to understand their connection to and dependency upon nature. Children who spend more time in nature have been shown to care more about the environment as adults. By getting children outside, not only are you helping them to improve their mood, attention, health and creativity, you are creating those special moments that turn into lasting memories.
Getting back to nature doesn’t have to mean taking a trip to a national park. It can be as simple as going outside and over-turning a large rock to see what dwells beneath or simply going on a walk and taking notice of what bugs, birds and flowers you see along the way. A simple walk in the rain can lead to conversations about earthworms or the water cycle. In fact as parents, every nearby yard, stream and field can be an opportunity to help kids be more focused, confident, healthy and balanced. In addition, kids’ curiosity and creativity increases as their time spent outdoors increases.
For young children, simple activities is all it takes: sit on the sidewalk and look at the bugs, close your eyes and guess what sounds you hear or explore a little stream. Have a picnic on a blanket under a shady tree.
For older elementary-aged children, let them climb a tree, take a short hike through the woods, make and label a leaf collection, identify different rocks, or study birds and their songs.
Teenagers can look for nature-related service projects or summer jobs, such as a camp counselor. Encourage them to organize friends to beautify a vacant lot or improve biking or hiking trails.
Adults can benefit just as much as kids. Consider ditching the gym membership and moving your workout outside. Eat lunch outside. Go for an after dinner walk. The stress relief and focus that comes out of a dose of nature can be unrivaled by any medication.
For family activities, plant a garden, set up a bird-feeder or bird-house, create an official nature habitat in your yard though the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program , go camping or geo-caching. The key is to just go…get outdoors…and reconnect with our natural world. This connection can enrich every aspect of life, even over-all health and mental function.
We live in a state that is chock full of nature. A little to our west we can find mountains and to our east the Atlantic shoreline. Locally, the Nature Center or crowncharlotte.org offer great programs to help families reconnect with nature. Mecklenburg County also has a wonderful system of parks and greenways to take advantage of as well.
We talked more about this topic on Charlotte Today. Check it out here!