Spending more time outdoors, preferably in natural settings, may be the simplest, healthiest, and most economical remedy for the terrible increase in numbers of children diagnosed with social, emotional, and learning problems over the past two decades. It may also be the answer to many problems suffered by adults in our increasingly rushed, technology-focused lives. And on a global scale, there’s evidence that more people spending more time in natural spaces would contribute to solving the environmental challenges that are increasingly disrupting our lives.
Naturalistic intelligence (one of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences) is a discriminating and appreciative sensitivity to the natural world, paralleling mathematical, musical, and other intelligences. And just as people can have weaknesses in the other intelligences, they can have problems related to this one. David Suzuki, Richard Louv, and others have been writing for years now about a chronic and prevalent ‘nature deficit disorder’ that causes emotional, physical, and psychological ailments in children and adults.
And now we have compelling evidence connecting time spent in the natural world with both happiness and ecological sustainability. Marilyn Price-Mitchell recently wrote an article called ‘Does Nature Make Us Happy?’ After reviewing the research, she argued that ‘Our connections with nature could be the best medicine for people of all ages—improving our health, happiness, and well-being. Those same connections could also heal the planet.’
Laura Markham has also written about the benefits to kids’ health, intelligence, and happiness: kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more successful at school when they spend time outdoors. Spending more time in nature can improve attention, focus, and cognitive achievement. Children who learn in outdoor classrooms show big improvements in academic achievement, self-esteem, problem solving, creativity, and motivation to learn.
There’s an emergent field called ecopsychology that explores the synergistic relationship between personal well-being and the well-being of the earth. Spending time outdoors facilitates a respectful attitude toward the natural environment, which contributes to the sustainability of the planet we live on. People who feel connected to nature are more likely to respect environmental concerns, and live sustainable lifestyles. They are also more likely to support environmental causes that educate and engage others with the natural world.
Twelve Pathways to Health, Happiness, Intelligence, and Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability
Some people’s home and work situations make it easier to spend time in nature, and some make it harder. But even for the busiest family living in the densest urban places, there are ways to make it happen. You might start by limiting time on technology, both for yourself and for your child. That can magically free up time that’s better spent outside.
Here are twelve ideas that will help you increase your child’s (and your own) health, happiness, intelligence, and creativity, and also contribute to the chances of our earth’s survival:
- Daily outdoor time. From the time he’s born, make sure your child gets some outdoor time every day—no matter the weather or your schedule.
- Be enthusiastic about nature. Show an open appreciation for the wonders of nature. Even in the middle of a busy city, you can celebrate the sunrise, the moon, the buds beginning to show on the trees, birdsong, and the changes of the seasons.
- Make an outdoor happy place. If you have access to any outdoor space, make it inviting, and spend time there with your child. If possible, create a sandbox, a water feature, or some kind of swing. Encourage your child to build a play fort.
- Move and play outside. Look for outdoor opportunities for swimming, bicycling, walking, running.
- Eat naturally. Pay attention to what you’re eating and where your food comes from. Seasonal, fresh, and local is better. Talk to your child about where in nature his food comes from. If at all possible, show him that food in the field or on the hoof.
- Eat outside. Whenever possible, have your meals outside.
- Discover neighbourhood parks. Find and explore all the parks within walking distance.
- Enjoy nature’s diversity. Whenever possible, find and explore meadows, woods, swamps, streams, lakes, desserts, and oceans.
- Grow a garden. Get your child to help design, till, nourish, plant, weed, water, and harvest it. If you don’t have an outdoor patch, create a windowsill garden. Alternatively, you can participate in an allotment or community garden. If you’d like to do that, and there aren’t any community gardens nearby, see if you can get together with your neighbours and make one happen.
- Leave the car at home. Walk or ride a bike whenever possible.
- Advocate for nature at your child’s school. Recess should be outdoors as much as possible, and should be extended whenever possible. Encourage your child’s school to implement a nature studies program, and have outdoor field trips on a regular basis.
- Participate in a ‘playborhood.’ If your neighbourhood doesn’t have a natural outdoor gathering spot, get together with other parents to create a ‘playborhood:’ a hangout where kids can play and socialize together with the adults in their lives.
For the research and articles cited here:
and for more resources on supporting children’s optimal development: