Children often spend a lot of time indoors. In fact, “children spend on average less than one hour per day outside” (National Gardening Association, 2018). And yet, a connection to nature has significant developmental benefits for children. Physical health advantages include an increase in vitamin D from sunlight, development of a healthy and stable weight, improvement in motor coordination and balance, and an increase in physicality. Energy levels are improved. From a mental and emotional perspective, being outdoors helps children develop a sense of psychological well-being with better concentration, less inattention, impulsivity and depression. Stress and anxiety are reduced, and moods are improved. They may choose green retreats for emotional restoration. Their play becomes more imaginative, creative and cooperative. In addition, children experience environmental competence (Chawla, L. 2015. Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature).
When the nature experience embraces gardening activities, children are more likely to eat more veggies, which, with their brain-building vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, may improve cognitive function. By learning how plants grow and interact with soil, water and sunlight, their science awareness expands. They can pick up math skills. Gardening encourages curiosity and a sense of exploration. To top it off, children can have fun getting dirty. In fact, a lack of childhood exposure to so-called germs can actually increase a child’s susceptibility to diseases due to a suppression of the development of a strong immune system. Family connection is strengthened by gardening together and this promotes team building and communication skills. Children expand out of themselves by taking care of a living thing. This builds a sense of purpose and responsibility (http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/03/gardening-kids-affects-childs-brain-body-soul/).
In 2005, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from nature when children “withdraw indoors in front of television and computer screens.” Without a connection to outdoor physical activity and nature, there often is a “diminished” use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world. These problems are linked more broadly to what health care experts call the epidemic of inactivity, and to a devaluing of independent play (www.childrenandnature.org).
Since “nature is a protective factor” (Chawla), what holiday gardening or other nature gifts might we give to the children in our lives to turn our little people into nature lovers?
JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.