Celebrate Earth Day Everyday!
Recently a number of articles have surfaced publicizing research that indicates cognitive, physical and emotional advantages to spending time immersed in nature. Admittedly, it can be challenging to get outdoors everyday and perhaps sending your children out the back door is a thing of the past, with encroaching roads, disease carrying insects and a high priority placed on after school curricular activities. But, are our fears of mosquitoes and time spent on computers, i-pads and phones doing America’s children more harm than good? Startling research suggests so.
The average American child spends just 15 to 25 minutes playing outside each day, while spending nearly 7 and a half hours in front of a screen. Eighty percent of 5-year-olds are computer users. For most of human history, people spent their days outside, chasing down food, planting crops, and learning about Mother Nature. This time outdoors endowed people with Vitamin D from the sun, fitter physiques, healthier hearts, and lower stress levels. Even today these are ingredients to leading a happy and healthy life. In less than a century, millions of people divorced themselves from nature, but at what cost?
Richard Louv’s 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods” coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the consequences when humans detach themselves from nature. Louv argued that the behavioral problems which seem to plague today’s youth could be caused by how little time children spend in the outdoors. Louv writes “kids who play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns.” In fact, studies show spending adequate time in nature may actually boost the immune system.
Mary Brown, M.D., former member of the board of directors of The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains, in the past, the morbidities threatening children were primarily infectious disease, which have been reduced by the development of vaccines and technical advancements. “Today’s morbidities are much more complicated, but equally threatening to our children and grandchildren. These will take more than a parent, a pediatrician, a teacher, and a ‘village’ to solve.”
Recent studies have shown the negative impact of stress on early brain development that can have lifelong effects on metal, physical and emotional health. Children’s brains are particularly sensitive to emotional, social, economic, and demographic stresses. The structure of children’s brains is permanently altered by these types of unfavorable childhood experiences. Currently, 14 million children and adolescents have some type of mental health disorder and suicide has become the leading cause of mortality in adolescents. But nature can HELP!
Spending time playing in the outdoors can lessen the impact of stresses on a child’s life and develop children’s imaginations and creativity. Countless pediatricians and researchers emphasize the importance of safe, unstructured play in developing happy, healthy children who will turn into happy, healthy adults ready to contribute to society. Positive experiences in nature have proven to have lasting effects on the development of self-esteem, independence, leadership, values, and willingness to try new things. By understanding mankind’s innate connection to the natural world and emphasizing the positive effects of spending time in nature we can combat our societal battle with depression, obesity, behavioral disorders, drug abuse and unhealthy risk taking.
So, this Earth Day, grab your kids and go outside, take a 15-minute walk or just sit and soak in that Vitamin-D; you might just be surprised about how good a little time in nature makes you and your children feel.
 Timothy Egan, “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” The New York Times, March 29, 2013, sec. Opinion.
 Mary Brown, M.D. , ” ‘Vitamin N’ and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” The New Nature Movement, February 2, 2012, blog.childrenandnature.org/2013/02/02/”vitamin-n”-and-the-american-academy-of-pediatrics/.