From Screen to Green

By 2019-05-23 16:41:44

Encouraging our children to embrace nature - improving their cognitive development, self-esteem, and physical health.

Over the last two decades, children have been gradually spending more time playing video games or staring at screens. Richard Louv, author of the book, ‘Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder’, tells the story of interviewing a child who told him that he liked playing indoors more than outdoors, “because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

This culture of sitting for long periods playing games or using wired media has led to increased obesity and diabetes, heart diseases, sleep disorders and a number of social and psychological problems. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17% of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 are obese, a number that has tripled since 1980. The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

The benefits of connecting with nature have been well documented. A body of research shows that children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health is influenced in a positive way when they have daily interaction with nature. A study by Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan (2001) supported the hypothesis that ADD symptoms are more manageable after activities in green settings than after events in other contexts. ‘Nature is important to children’s development in every major way- intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically.’ (Kellert, 2005) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two years old not watch any TV and those older than two years watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.

Improving a child’s cognitive development, self-esteem, physical health?

Proximity to, views of and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive ability (Wells 2000). Nature activates more senses and awakens a child’s multi-sensory interaction with the environment – for example through visual input of multiple colours, olfactory experiences linked to visual and tactile information such as looking at and touching leaves and flowers. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience.”

Benefits to physical well-being

Children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, Fjortoft, Ingunn (2001). Outdoor exercise is better for children than indoors: Exercise can release endorphins into the bloodstream which has a soothing effect and can help with the production of melatonin which helps with better sleep.

Interacting with nature builds confidence. The way that children play in nature is less structured than most types of indoor play. According to the ‘Attention Restoration Theory’, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we practice an easy type of awareness known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.

Getting a little dirty leads to happier, healthier lives.

When we let our children play in the dirt, we're not only allowing them to explore the wonders around them. We are also exposing them to healthy bacteria, parasites, and viruses that will inevitably create a much stronger immune system. Many kids who live in an ultra-clean environment have a greater chance of suffering from allergies like asthma and other autoimmune diseases that we would otherwise be protected from.

Studies have shown that just having contact with dirt, whether it is through gardening, digging holes, or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child's mood and reduce anxiety and stress. With antidepressant use in kids on the rise, an increasing number of experts are recognizing the role of nature in enhancing kids' mental health. Dirt can even improve classroom performance.

There is a rising prevalence of vitamin D deficiency (“the sunshine vitamin”) among infants, children, and adolescents worldwide. Vitamin D deficiency is a risk for rickets and may be a risk factor for developing cardiovascular diseases, cancer or autoimmune conditions (Huh, Gordon).

More time spent outdoors is related to reduced rates of nearsightedness, also known as myopia, in children and adolescents (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011). Time spent outdoors improves social relations. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others when they have regular opportunities for free and unconstructed play outdoors.

Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active and healthy bodies. Being outside improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness. Research also shows that children who grow their food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and show higher levels of knowledge about nutrition (Waliczek and Zajicek, 2006). They are also more likely to continue healthy eating habits throughout their lives (Morris and Zidenburg-cherr, 2002)

Recommendations for Parents

• Visit favourite local nature spots such as Century Park, Chenshan Botanical garden and Gucun park, all in Shanghai.

• Dress appropriately to encourage children to interact with nature, e.g. putting on wellies for playing in wet conditions.

• Use nature to create art in a way that does not destroy the environment, e.g. using dead leaves, sticks etc. to make models.

• Allow your child to get dirty while exploring nature. Let your child get wet, climb rocks, jump in puddles taking manageable risks which are vital for their development.

• Use observations of nature to teach your child and develop curiosity, e.g. regarding texture, seasons, why some leaves are green, and others are a variety of colours, the rain cycle, how plants make food and breathe.

• Bring your child’s camera, IPad along so that they may learn a different way of using electronic gadgets and capture memories of nature which can be shared with family and school.

• If possible, grow your own plants and develop your child’s understanding of the importance of nature to our well-being.

• Teach your child names of plants, animals as well as seasons and the plants associated with the seasons.