Longer school days, more homework, urbanization, organized sports, and daily access to technology. . . . we all know the statistics: children are spending less time in nature than ever before. Studies confirm that kids now spend up to 90% of their leisure time inside. Sadly, many schools contribute to this trend.
“We don’t place the proper value on time outside, time without intentional goals or structured expectations,” writes Lauren Maples, founder of Bija School in Brooklyn, NY. “This is robbing our kids of joy and challenge—both such meaningful parts of life.”
“Unlike a structured school day, the routine of home life, and sports, there is no telling what one will encounter outside. Whether it is crossing a stream, building a fort, or figuring out how to scale a rock, time in nature helps kids figure stuff out. When kids learn to problem solve in situations that are fun and spontaneous they are able to carry those skills into their schoolwork and daily life.”
Time in nature is not just a luxury; it’s a very important educational platform which every teacher and parent should embrace. How and where should you begin?
What happens when kids have unstructured time to play and explore outdoors?
Unlike a structured school day, the routine of home life, organized classes, and sports, there is no telling what one will encounter outside. Whether it is crossing a stream, building a fort, or figuring out how to scale a rock, time in nature helps kids figure stuff out. When kids learn to problem solve in situations that are fun and spontaneous they are able to carry those skills into their schoolwork and daily life.
Kids need to learn to take risks in order to be able to cope with the world. Life is full of adversity and many children today do not have the skills to manage everyday challenges. Playing outside requires kids to try things that might scare them, but does so in a way that is fun and inviting. How exciting was it the first time you climbed a tree, figured out how to trap minnows, or encountered a wild animal? These situations build self-esteem and foster a willingness to try new things.
Children who play outside become naturally curious and creative. Nature is full of open-ended materials. Pine cones become babies, leaves become blankets, and sticks become telescopes. Using imagination and creativity are valuable skills that will guide kids throughout their life.
It’s important for children to use their bodies in experimental ways. Outdoor play in nature inspires and often requires running, kicking, jumping, climbing, and balancing. Coordination and core strength are improved as a result of these activities. When these skills are fostered early on, children are more successful not only in sports, but in academics as well, not to mention they are healthier in mind and spirit.
Studies show that anxiety, depression, and possibly even ADD are reduced when children spend more time in nature. Children today have less control over their lives than ever before. Since 1955 the school day and school year have continued to get longer and homework has become the norm (sometimes for kids as young as 3!). The more scheduled we make their lives, the more children suffer from depression, anxiety, and attention deficit challenges. Children need freedom to play. They need time to themselves and with peers. It is no surprise that as we have removed these things from kid’s lives we have seen a vast increase in psychological problems. Time in nature offers great opportunities to help kids regain some control of their childhood.
When children understand the sanctity of life they respect it. Time in nature helps kids understand just how precious life is, and that life truly is all around us. Our world is in crisis and our children are the generation that will be able to stand up and fix it. Appreciating nature is the first step in the process.
Healthier in body, mind, and spirit!
Offering children nature experiences doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Teachers can find ways to incorporate nature into everyday activities.
There are many ways to collect nature. Try this nature bracelet activity.
Finding Joy in Nature
Spending time in nature doesn’t have to be perfect. It may require examining your own assumptions about teaching and your relationship to the great outdoors. Children will watch what you model and notice if bugs, dirt, cold temperatures, or bright sun make you embrace the outdoors or stay inside. What are you interested in exploring? What are your children excited about? Start with the things that move you, collect reference books from the library and bring nature back into the classroom. Each little step will help create connections. This is the real work, the real learning. Finding meaning and joy sets the stage for a lifelong desire to grow, question, and create change. When students become invested, mindful people—and I believe nature experiences lay the groundwork for just that—then we as educators can be proud.