Several years ago, I watched my daughter and nephew create an elaborate “squirrel house” for the black and grey squirrels that resided in my parents’ tree-covered backyard. For hours I observed them gather sticks, leaves, bark, a lid from an old container and other materials to be incorporated into the squirrel house design. I also heard them strategize how it could stand, saw them fix and reinforce it when it fell over and find ways to “allow” younger siblings to contribute to the creation and maintenance of the house without destroying their masterpiece. Each day in the summer, they would eagerly check the squirrel house to see if the squirrels needed anything since they were sure that the squirrels did indeed sleep and eat there. In the years since, I have often heard them speak and send messages between them about the squirrel house with fond remembrance even though life has them now living several thousand miles apart.
The previous paragraph is completely full of nostalgia, but it highlights the essential role nature plays in the healthy development of children. Despite the knowledge of the importance of nature, both intrinsically and through many research studies, some statistics indicate that on average children in the United States only spend 4-7 minutes outside playing each day while finding themselves in front of electronics upwards of 7.5 hours each day (National Recreation and Park Association, NRPA).
There are many mental health benefits for children when it comes to spending time in nature. They include but are not limited to the following “12 Cs”:
- Concentration is enhanced as time in the outdoors has been found to improve symptoms of decreased focus and attention.
- Cheerfulness is found in greater quantities due to the release of dopamine in the brain.
- Creativity has been found to increase by upwards of 50% in one study!
- Calming is another benefit due to the grounding characteristics of nature.
- Compassion is further developed, first through an increase in care and concern for the environment and then towards people.
- Communication is increased as families have additional opportunities to spend time with one another.
- Catharsis come from the release of energy allowed and encouraged in outside activities.
- Connections are forged not only with nature but within families.
- Character is built through an expanding outward view of the world.
- Cooperation grows through creating, playing and spending time with family and others.
- Confidence is increased through appropriate risk-taking behaviors encouraged through play in natural environments.
- Curiosity is encouraged and expanded as more time is spent exploring nature. (Courtney and Langley, 2022, p. 7).
Additionally, from a physical perspective, there are many benefits to spending time in nature such as an overall increase in health related to better functioning of the immune system and a decrease in stress-related hormone levels which impact many body systems. Time outside has also been found in some studies to decrease myopia (near-sightedness) and reduce the risk of obesity (Midpen Openspace).
Oftentimes, busy lifestyles can make it seem very difficult to find the time to engage with nature but some creativity, flexibility and openness to experiences in nature can make these benefits realizable while creating new and lasting family memories. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Take a nature walk and use all your senses – for example find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste (make sure you take a snack for that one!).
- Find things while you are in nature that represent each color of the rainbow.
- Gather sticks, leaves, and other nature-related pieces to create a work of art.
- Bird-watch or identify bugs or plants.
- Meditate while touching a tree, or feeling your feet firmly planted on the ground.
- Build a squirrel house.
Albert Einstein has been quoted saying, “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. May this summer and all the seasons going forward include more time in nature and an increase in health and understanding for you and your family!
Courtney, J.A., & Langley, J.L. (2022). An introduction to the emerging practice of nature-based play therapies and expressive therapies. In Courtney, J.A., Langley, J.L., Wonders, L.L., Heiko, R., & R. Lapiere (Eds.), Nature-based play and expressive therapies: Interventions for working with children, teens, and families (3-14). Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781003152767-2
Midpen Openspace (n.d.). Health benefits of nature. https://www.openspace.org/stories/health-benefits-nature
National Recreation and Park Association. (n.d.). Children in nature: Improving health be reconnecting youth with the outdoors. https://www.nrpa.org/uploadedFiles/nrpa.org/Advocacy/Children-in-Nature.pdf