Too often our days are spent indoors at work and taking the kids from place to place that we forget the true value of spending time in nature. Here’s why encouraging the benefits of time spent in nature is important especially for kids and their physical and mental health.
The Importance of Spending Time in Nature
One evening, while walking the dog down a forest trail, I had a sense that something wasn’t quite right. After about 15 minutes it finally occurred to me: there were no birds singing. I stopped and, with much effort, I finally spotted the owl that had silenced all the wildlife. I was so stressed from work that day it took me at least 15 minutes to notice the birds were not singing.
We often talk about the restorative benefits of nature, but it also important to remember the learning that comes with spending time in nature. While people of all ages can grow through nature-based experiences, they are especially powerful for young children in the development of decision-making skills and self-confidence. Time in nature is important for mental and physical health as well as what Karen Sumner calls a “brain boost.”
Encouraging Physical and Mental Health in Kids Through Nature
When I got home from my walk I had a second “brain burst” when I listened to Dr. David Goldbloom talk about A Framework For a Mental Health Strategy For Canada. Both the language and the focus of the document feels like a restorative walk in the woods for what has been loosely called the mental health system. To talk about services that support recovery and quality of life feels very much like a new focus provides people a starting point that makes enormous sense. To acknowledge that much can be achieved through prevention and the enhancement of support factors, such as social support factors, feels like a dip in a cold lake. To acknowledge the critical role of the family is very important, not because it is a new finding, but because it will help services to further enable and empower the voice of family members.
In addition, each year camps facilitate positive life-changing experiences for hundreds of children and youth. In a world where there is a growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, and where there are record corporate profits with high unemployment, this has consistently been a good news story. In Ontario we are also blessed with several other good news stories, like the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, Presidents Choice Charity, the Kinark Foundation, Kids In Camp, and the Autism Ontario Camp Fund, among many camp experience supporting organizations and charities.
More than anywhere else in the world, there has been a multi-generational awareness in Ontario of the value of time in the outdoors, and of value of the “camp” experience and its connection to children’s physical and mental health. While the organized summer camp has often been described as a North American phenomenon, the benefits and importance of the experiences packaged by the camp experience are universal. The research is unequivocal about what is achieved through the provision of summer camp programs. What is disconcerting about this are the outcomes of what happens when we do not support children to have nature-based experiences, sufficient time outdoors, physical activity time, free play opportunities and social interaction program structures in an outdoor setting.
Fighting Nature Deficit Disorder and Providing Opportunities to Get Outdoors
The escalation and increase in children’s mental and health issues is directly linked to these lack of opportunities. The good news is that the solutions are simple and right around the corner. In Ontario there are a plethora of summer recreational experiences, from canoe trips to half-day programs in the park down the street. There is a recognition on the part of municipalities, faith communities, social service agencies, community associations and organizations of the value and importance of outdoor recreation experiences.
While I do not know for sure that David Goldbloom and the other commission members spent some time in nature when they developed this framework, I do know they did not miss the forest for the trees and probably saw the owl very early on.
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Have you noticed how the importance of children spending time in nature affects their physical and mental health directly? Do you think more can be done to promote the benefits of nature for kids? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.