Martha Erickson, PhD, always believed that her frequent nature outings with her children, and her encouragement of their independent play and exploration outdoors, helped them mature into well-rounded adults. These days, she's getting confirmation of that fact.
"As many young people were spending increasing amounts of time watching television or playing video games, my kids were much more likely to head off on their bikes, canoe down the creek that flows through our city or rally some friends to create an outdoor adventure," she says. "Now, as young adults, they are fit, creative, adventurous and striving to protect the environment."
Increasing evidence demonstrates the many benefits of nature on children's psychological and physical well-being, including reduced stress, greater physical health, more creativity and improved concentration.
"The basic finding seems to be yes, nature does seem to be really good for kids," says Frances Kuo, PhD, founder of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Beyond the health and cognitive benefits children may gain from free and unstructured play outdoors, nature also provides them with a sense of wonder and a deeper understanding of our responsibility to take care of the Earth, says Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit-Disorder" (Algonquin Books, 2005). Yet increasingly, nature is the last place you'll find children, research shows.
Many factors have come together to push children indoors, he says, including land development and more people living in cities, additional demands on children's time-such as more homework and structured activities-video games and the Internet, and parental fear, particularly of strangers. In today's society of indoor children, personal connections with nature seem hard to come by, which threatens to lessen future generations' concerns about the environment, Louv says.
"Last time I checked, it was pretty tough to have a sense of wonder when you're playing 'Grand Theft Auto,'" Louv says. "If we're raising a generation of children under protective house arrest, where does that lead us in terms of our connection to the natural world?"
As experts in child development and learning, psychologists are helping children reconnect with nature by conducting research, incorporating the outdoors into clinical interventions and educating parents, says Erickson, a director of early childhood mental health training programs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
"People often listen to what psychologists have to say when it comes to kids' learning and development," she says. "We really need to work as advocates and in our practices to think about the potential of nature to improve the health and well-being of children."
Green is good
Psychologists have actively studied the role nature plays in children's mental health since the early 1980s, when Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, PhD, introduced his theory of "biophilia," which argues that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world. Now, a host of studies are showing just how essential outdoor activities are for the developing mind.
One of the most influential longitudinal studies, led by Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, PhD, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6). Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children in rural upstate New York, Wells found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child's resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress (Environment and Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 3).
But while such studies support the notion that nature is good for children, psychologists may need to act fast to get children back outside. A study by University of Maryland sociologist Sandra Hofferth, PhD, shows that between 1997 and 2003, the amount of time children ages 9 to 12 spent participating in outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, fishing, camping and gardening declined by 50 percent.
What are children doing instead? Playing video games, watching TV and spending time on the computer, Hofferth found.
Such activities are, of course, linked with the rise in childhood obesity. A 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that one-third of children and teens, ages 2 to 19, were overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. By 2010, about half of school-age children in North and South America will be overweight or obese, predicts an article in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity(Vol. 1, No. 1).
Without building a connection to the natural world when they're young, it seems unlikely that children will possess much of an affiliation with Mother Earth as adults, says Wells. In fact, a 2006 study-led by Wells and published in Children, Youth and Environments (Vol. 16, No. 1)-suggests that childhood participation with nature may set individuals on a trajectory toward adult environmentalism.
"This study shows that there really may be a connection between kids' experiences in nature and their later life attitudes and behaviors," Wells says.
Erickson agrees. "It's a principle of human nature that you care for what you know and what you love," says Erickson. "Learning about climate change just by studying it on the Internet or reading about it in books is one thing, but to come to know and love the natural world firsthand from an early age just gives you a different kind of motive [for preserving it]."
Reinventing children of nature
Practitioners can use this research as strong evidence for incorporating nature into their client interventions, says Erickson.
"Making time to get outside to play, run and explore could be a really important part of a treatment plan," she says.
Psychologists can also encourage school administrators to get children outside during the school day, by working with their state psychological associations to develop briefing papers for local school boards, contacting local news media to encourage coverage of the benefits of nature to children or leading volunteer efforts to plant gardens at a local schools, Erickson recommends. Creative exploration and firsthand experience discovering nature appear to be the best ways for children to learn about a host of subjects-particularly science- according to research, Erickson says. More recess time and greener playgrounds might also enable children to learn more effectively, and improve a child's ability to concentrate in the classroom, says Kuo. In a study published in the September 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 94, No. 9), Kuo and her colleague, Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, found that green outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms significantly more than activities in built outdoor and indoor settings.
"If we had kids moving around and burning off energy, I think we would have much less difficulty with kids having trouble paying attention in the classroom," Erickson says.
Wells says research by psychologists and others may help determine whether there may be a "critical period" for children's exposure to the natural environment, and if so, when that might be.
Perhaps most importantly, psychologists are among those helping to educate the public-particularly parents-on the importance of getting children outside. In April, Erickson will help kick off a statewide children and nature awareness campaign in Minnesota, which will include television and radio coverage and public events-such as moonlight walks at a Minneapolis-area nature center-focused on specific steps parents and other caregivers can take to help renew children's interest in the natural world. Similar public outreach initiatives are also underway in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and California, among others, according to the Children and Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org)-a national organization which Louv and Erickson help lead-dedicated to reconnecting children with nature.
Often, parents aren't aware of nature's benefits to their children, or aren't sure how to tear their children away from the computer or television screen, says Meg Houlihan, PhD, a private practitioner in Charlotte, N.C., who speaks locally to parents and teachers about overcoming barriers to getting kids outside. She emphasizes gradual change: taking children out on the front lawn for an hour, for example.
"It's important to give the message to parents that it doesn't have to be a huge trip to Yellowstone to be nature," says Houlihan.
She tells parents to pick up a handful of paint chips from the hardware store and have their children find things in the backyard that match those colors, or to host a neighborhood scavenger hunt in the park. These types of activities help children build a love for nature through everyday interactions-with birds, trees and community gardens, for example. Only then will they be able to fully appreciate-and hopefully take action against-issues such as climate change, Houlihan says.
"Kids are already hearing that polar bears don't have anywhere to rest," she says. "If we don't have them outside thinking that squirrels are fascinating, they may get overwhelmed and down completely."