"Let's go outside for some fresh air," I find myself saying to my 4-year-old. It is cold and blustery, not an ideal outdoor day. Yet I utter these words out of desperation for he is moody, unhappy, bored, and uncooperative. I sense we are on the verge of a major meltdown; he's simply had enough -- of everything. He likes my idea, yet struggles and complains as we put on his snowsuit for warmth. He stomps his way across our brown, grassy yard, still unhappy with me. However, as we move from the grass to the edge of the woods where twigs begin to snap under our boots, I see his frustration melting away. He picks up his pace and begins to chat excitedly over the sounds of treetops whipping and cracking in the wind. He even smiles at me as he picks up a large stick. It's like someone flipped a switch on my child -- yet all I did was open the front door for him.
Unfortunately, fewer parents are opening doors. Inarguably, children spend more time indoors today than ever before, leading to what one author coined "nature-deficit disorder." Whether we point the finger at sprawling suburbia, busy roadways, technology, over-scheduling, or parental fear, the result is the same: a lack of outdoor time.
"Children under 7, especially, have this intrinsic connection to the outdoors. The connection is already there, it just needs to be unleashed," says Barbara Erickson, president and CEO of The Trustees of Reservations. The Trustees, as it's known, is a 125-year-old Massachusetts non-profit that preserves, for public use and enjoyment, 116 properties of scenic, historic, and ecological value throughout the state. Erickson is waging a war on nature-deficit disorder, increasing family programming at The Trustees from 15% of its programs five years ago to a whopping 50% today.
"We've seen a real change in the way children experience childhood compared to generations before them," she notes. "Children today are over-programmed and over-focused on educational goals. Increases in technology have severely reduced the ability for kids to be outside in unstructured play. We know that, on average, children engage in 4 to 7 hours of screen time a day -- and we're worried about it!"
Erickson is not the only one concerned. After the 2005 publication of his novel Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv and peers co-founded the Children & Nature Network, a non-profit that fuels the movement to reconnect children and their families to nature by supporting worldwide grassroots efforts.
"Time in nature is as important as sleep or good nutrition," says Sarah Milligan Toffler, executive director of the Children & Nature Network.
Louv coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder," which is not intended as a medical diagnosis, but rather as a description of the human costs of alienation from nature, and it's a phrase that seems to resonate with many, she adds.
Time spent outdoors can impact everything from physical and mental health, as well as education in the form of better concentration and social-emotional outcomes, while also providing preventative benefits in the form of stress reduction, she adds.
"Even views of trees have been shown to reduce cortisol levels," she says. "Yet within the last 30 years, childhood has moved inside."
Time outdoors also benefits conservation efforts by providing children with a connection to the natural world.
"It's hard to care for something that you're not emotionally connected to," she notes.
In an effort to connect children and families to the natural world, The Trustees strive to make it easy for families to enjoy all the Commonwealth has to offer. On May 20, the organization will hold a free, statewide, open house at 10 historic sites. It also recently announced a new library pass program, which will enable libraries to offer patrons passes to many diverse Trustees properties.
"The Trustees does everything it can to get families outside," Erickson says. "There's something for everyone -- you don't have to be a naturalist to get out in nature and enjoy our programs."
The developmental jackpot
"We actually already know, intellectually as well as intuitively, that time in nature is critical for physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual health," explains Donna M. Denette, director and co-founder of Children First Enterprises, a non-profit childcare organization in Granby. "For children, reduced time in nature [i.e., outdoor play] hinders their development, their health, and their happiness."
The fact that outdoor play is beneficial for children is nothing new to most parents, but the magnitude of these benefits -- and the science behind it -- may surprise them.
For example, spending time outside can help children better manage emotions, pay attention, and be able to learn, as Children & Nature Network's Milligan Toffler noted. This occurs because being outdoors in nature creates an ideal state for sensory integration to happen, explains Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, a Barrington, N.H., camp that seeks to reconnect children with nature.
Sensory integration is the organization of the senses and the organization of the brain. But sensory organization can only happen when multiple senses are engaged, and when we are in a calm, but alert, state, she says.
"Organization of the senses and organization of the brain, in general, are found to help children cope with emotions, pay attention in school, and be able to learn," says Hanscom, whose work focuses on sensory and attention issues in children.
And the stimuli children experience while outside is very different from that indoors, she adds, noting that while the smells, sounds, and colors of nature (blues, greens, browns) all have a very calming effect, one must also be in an alert state while outside. For example, footing could be uneven or a small animal could dart in front of you at any time. Multiple senses are engaged, and our body is in a calm, yet alert, state -- sensory integration is taking place.
Hanscom explains that during sensory integration, our senses receive stimuli from our environment. Our brain then processes this information and organizes it, thus enabling us to respond and interact with our environment appropriately. For example, when outside, the sounds of birds cause you to orient your body to the space around you; this is spatial awareness in action.
Additionally, Hanscom says, outdoor play stimulates the vestibular system. There are tiny hair cells in our inner ear, and as we move our heads side to side, the hair cells move and help develop our vestibular senses, also known as our balance system, she explains. By moving their bodies in different directions -- whether jumping, running, rolling, spinning, or swinging -- a child's balance system is stimulated and develops.
"The whole balance system is really critical and can affect everything," she adds. "In order to develop a strong balance system, kids need to move their bodies in all directions. The outdoors offer ample space to move and play; movement is restricted when kids play indoors."
The importance of trust
Allowing our children more time in nature seems simple enough, however, it can be a leap of faith for many of today's parents. They are over-involved in their children's outdoor play (and indoors, too), which does not allow children the free, unstructured, and sometimes risky play that is essential to healthy child development.
Every time parents say, "Slow down," "Be careful," "Don't climb on that," or "Make sure you share," they are interfering in their child's play. This is a disservice, as it doesn't allow children to work through problems on their own or experiment with their own limits. The message sent: "We don't trust you."
"We think we're doing the right thing, but really we're causing harm," Hanscom says.
"Fear-based parenting inhibits healthy growth and development," Denette adds. "When we don't trust our children, they don't learn to trust themselves. When they don't 'fall,' they don't learn how to get back up or try a different strategy."
Hanscom describes an interaction she observed between a group of children at her TimberNook camp, which illustrates the important developmental benefits independent play can offer children. A group of girls were building a teepee in the woods, when a boy began yelling at the girls, "You have to let me play!" The girls did not want to let him play. The boy had a pair of scissors, which he used to cut a string that was attached to their teepee, then he stole some "jewels" from the girls and ran off. The girls chased him, until finally he gave up and said, "Fine, you have them." The boy took off to sulk by a tree, while the girls rebuilt their teepee. Afterwards, one of the girls approached the boy. From a distance, staff could see the boy was yelling at the girl, at which point she would simply put up her hand as if to tell him to stop. The two went back and forth a few times, then the girl invited the boy to play with her and the others. Not only did he join in that day, but he played with them for the rest of the week, Hanscom says.
There were several moments when staff could have intervened to problem solve for these children. However, had staff done so, they would have deprived the boy and the girls of many developmental opportunities.
During this example, which in-volved conflict, the girls learned how to stand up for themselves. The boy learned that yelling and whining is not the best way to communicate his needs. The girl who invited him to play also learned empathy, while the boy discovered he must regulate his emotions and anger, Hanscom says.
"Had we intervened early on and told the girls, 'You need to play with him,' both the boy and the girls would have resented each other," she says.
Aside from intervening in our child's play with other children, parents today are simply hesitant to allow children adequate, unstructured time outdoors in nature -- climbing, swinging, rolling, spinning, and jumping -- unencumbered by our adult fears.
"While no one wants their child to get hurt, the fear of it is disproportionate to the reality of what might occur," Denette notes.
"What are you really afraid of?" Hanscom asks. Strangers? Get to know your neighbors so children can play together in groups, she suggests. Dirt? Stop by a thrift store and pick up extra play clothes for outside. Ticks? Educate yourself about ticks and make a habit of checking your children when they come in from playing outdoors.
"It is incumbent upon us to change the course of fear-based parenting, as well as overly restrictive regulations, in order to allow children the breadth and depth of play experiences in nature that are best for their full and healthy development. It's like allowing them to breathe," Denette says.
Easy ways to enjoy the outdoors
Getting the kids outside in nature does not have to be an orchestrated event. It can easily be worked into our daily routines, where it belongs. Here, Denette provides simple ways parents can get their children outdoors more often:
* Go for a walk, bike ride, or hike * Play in puddles * Allow them to get dirty (that's what hoses and baths are for) * Build a fort with sticks and sheets * Have a picnic * Nap in the sunshine * Draw with chalk on the sidewalk * Learn to identify things in your yard (trees, birds, plants) * Stake out a 1'x1' square in your yard and explore the micro world of nature with a magnifying glass * Go on a photo safari walk * Try geo-caching * Consider kayaking, camping, or fishing * Visit a state park
"It doesn't have to be complicated -- nature is everywhere," Children & Nature Network's Milligan Toffler says. "It's about following your child's lead. It's a matter of creating that interest, wonder, and connection."
Sometimes, it's as simple as opening the front door.