By Marguerite Jill Dye
Climbing a tree is a path to self-discovery. Building a woodland fort is an exercise in creativity. Stepping across a babbling brook develops confidence and brings joy. Our most treasured childhood memories are often from outdoor adventures. While 71 percent of adults played outside as kids, only 21 percent of America’s children regularly play outdoors now. But a child’s time experiencing nature reaps an array of health benefits and provides a life long love, wonder, and awe for our natural world. Nature constantly calls to us in Vermont, where we’re certainly fortunate to be. Just opening the door and venturing outside gives us a dose of “Vitamin N”: Nature!
“Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors,” according to the American Medical Association. Even five minutes of “green exercise” improve self-esteem and mental well being, especially in the young. Outdoor free play reduces obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and aggression. It boosts creativity, problem solving skills, and the ability to learn. It increases self-discipline and emotional and psychological well being. Who would have thought, a few years ago, we’d need a reminder that playing in nature promotes a child’s happiness?
“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically,” Richard Louv wrote in his bestselling book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” He named the diagnosis that stems from the growing phenomenon. “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading … As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
“Within reasonable limits, children need the freedom to play how they choose, including taking risks,” according to Dr. Mariana Brussoni, a developmental child psychologist. “We are experiencing an unprecedented curtailing of children’s outdoor and risky play that is already impacting children’s health and development. It is up to all of us to help provide children the opportunity to develop those life lessons and skills that are so important in shaping their future; helping them develop a view of the world as a place of possibility, rather than of danger.” OutsidePlay.ca was especially created to help adults gain confidence and skills to let children play outdoors.
Over the last 20 years, children’s relationship with nature has changed dramatically due to the technology of “entertainment media,” organized “constructive” activities, traffic, and “stranger danger”—the fear of abduction. When children are constantly told to “Be careful!” or “Don’t do that!” parents’ and caregivers’ own fears may lead to excessive limitations and overprotection. These can contribute to a child’s lack of self-confidence and a fear of taking risks. According to a study reported in The Guardian, children’s health and development are being negatively affected because they are spending less time in nature in self-initiated, outdoor free play. British weather isn’t known for its sunshine, but 64 percent of Brittish kids played outside less than once a week, 28 percent hadn’t gone for a walk in the country for a year, 21 percent had never visited a farm, and 29 percent never climbed a tree. American kids also play inside more than outside, and much closer to home than they used to. In fact, more childhood accidents are from falls out of bed than from a tree, these days.
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.