Why Children Need Nature

Article and photos by Ben Schiavo, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course

Children today are spending much less time outdoors than children in the past. Whether riding bikes, interacting with nature, or just playing with friends, research is pointing out that not enough time outdoors, and too much time indoors, especially when that time is spent in front of a screen, can have negative consequences. Research has shown that too much screen time has been associated with obesity, problems with cognitive development, irregular sleep schedules, behavioral problems, and loss of social skills. Parents are recommended to reconsider how much time their children spend interacting with screens, and that they should make sure their children play outside an hour a day; an hour which can help children physically, mentally and emotionally.

Losing our nature
Have you ever heard of nature deficit disorder? Most people have not. In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv pointed out that children are spending less and less time outside, and that some behavioral issues in children, such as limited respect of their surroundings, attention disorders, and depression stem from not spending enough time in nature. As a metaphor, and not a medical diagnosis, nature deficit disorder speaks to a loss of connection to the natural world. Did you know interaction with nature can reduce symptoms of ADD and ADHD? This is a lot to take in but let’s rewind for a quick second.

Back to the past
Remember the days when you were growing up? Riding bikes around with your friends, maybe getting into some trouble, and having to return home when the streetlamps turned on because that was Mom or Dad’s rule?

Children aren’t creating memories of time outside like we did. As a child I spent a lot of time with friends building a tree fort. If you look closely at the tree in the picture you can still see a rope tethered to it. My friends and I took an old tarp and tied it to that tree to make a fort where we could hang out and just be kids. To most, this may seem like a regular old backyard/forest, but to me it is my childhood. When looking back into their memories, all kids should get to experience the feeling of nostalgia that I have when I go into my backyard.

Instead, too many children are spending too much time in front of a screen. And importantly, too much screen time and too little nature time is more than a kid glued to their phone, it also means they can be feeling the negative psychological effects brought upon by too much tech use.

Finding your way back to nature

Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from the positive feelings, stress reduction, and attention restoration nature engenders.  Not only can nature deficit disorder be disruptive of the development of your child but it also promotes a generation of children disconnected with nature.  This is a troubling thought when looking into the future.  What will happen if our children are raised to not care about the environment? How can we implement positive change for theEarth if our children do not care about nature let alone go into it?

For parents, grandparents and anyone who cares for children, there are many different ways you can introduce nature into their lives:

  1. Take your child hiking. Show them the outdoors and let their imagination do the rest. Look at all the insects, the frogs, the butterflies and show them how beautiful and fun nature can be.  Heck, let them throw some rocks into the water if they get bored.
  2. Take your child to the parks in your area, like Boyd Park in New Brunswick. Boyd Park holds an event every year called the Raritan River Festival that has all sorts of fun, kid friendly events, like a rubber duck race down the Raritan River.   Not to mention music, food, arts and crafts, and basically everything a festival needs for a child to enjoy themselves. Show your kids that the outdoors around them can be fun if they give it a chance.
  3. Use social media to show your children that going outdoors is cool. A new trend on social media is the #trashtag challenge which involves going out and cleaning up your community. and afterwards, posting the pictures of all the things you found and disposing of them properly. The trend is beginning to gain speed, and those who participate receive huge positive feedback from those who see their actions! Your child could receive tens of thousands of likes on Twitter (which is a big deal to kids these days) making the children happy, and the Earth happy. Not only will your child be happier, but they will be healthier!

But it doesn’t have to be anything structured to reintroduce nature to your children.  Perhaps you can also think about how much you loved to be outside when you were a kid.  Build a tree fort, lay on your back and watch the clouds, feed the birds, plant a garden, kick a ball.  Just go outside and enjoy the world all around us.

References

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books, 2008.

Links

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_protect_kids_from_nature_deficit_disorder

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1056499318300592?via%3Dihub

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

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