A Walk in the Park: Nature’s Ritalin Nature is often overlooked as healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life. Parents need to know what a useful antidote to emotional and physical stress nature can be. Especially now when families are busier and more ―scheduled‖ than ever. Experiences in nature beginning early in a child’s life are not only beneficial but are necessary for healthy cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. Physical Obesity rates for children, even preschool children, have risen dramatically in the last decade. A recent Edmonton study found that one in four children are over weight and one in ten are considered obese. Two thirds of children can’t pass a basic physical. The best predictor of a preschool child’s fitness level is simply time spent outdoors. The physical exercise that children enjoy when they play in nature is more varied and less time-bound than organized sports. The physical benefits of playing outside are obvious --children are naturally more physically active. Other physical benefits may not be so obvious. Nature has a strong healing effect. Many studies credit exposure to plants or nature with speeding up recovery time from injury and sickness and even reducing overall health problems. Emotional One of the main benefits of spending time in nature is stress reduction. There has been lots of research done on the benefits of Outward-Bound, wilderness programs that have shown that connection with nature has a restorative effect on cognitive skills and emotional well being. Research on corporate workers found that those with a view of trees, bushes or large lawns experienced significantly less frustration, stress and more work enthusiasm than those employees without such views. Cornell University environmental psychologists reported that a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress, and that nature in or around the home appears to be a significant factor in protecting the psychological well-being of children in rural areas. Their study found that life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low nature conditions. The protective impact of nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children- those experiencing the highest levels of stressful life events. There has been a sharp increase in the rate at which antidepressants are being prescribed for children, especially preschool children. If you include medications for attention disorders, national spending on antidepressants and other medications for mental health disorders has surpassed spending on antibiotics and asthma medications for children. Although countless children who suffer from mental illness and attention disorders do benefit from medication, the use of nature as an alternative, additional or preventative therapy is being overlooked. In fact, new evidence suggests that the need for such medication is intensified by children’s disconnection with nature. Although exposure to nature may have no impact on the most severe depressions, researchers do know that nature experiences can relieve some of the everyday pressures that may lead to childhood depression. Significant evidence exists that a child’s emotional domain is the key entry point to learning and teaching. In other words, kids must feel something in order to learn something. The support and security offered by parents, siblings, friends, teachers and community are certainly the critical and irreplaceable core of this emotional foundation but evidence suggests that contact with the natural world, especially during early childhood, occupies a surprisingly important place in a child’s emotional responsiveness and receptivity and consequently learning. Cognitive Natural settings are essential for healthy early child development because they stimulate all the senses and integrate informal play with formal learning. Experiences in nature stimulate imagination and creativity and provide the building blocks for cognitive and intellectual development. Studies have shown that nature education and experiences stimulate cognitive learning and reduce attention deficits. Numerous research studies have found that children in general have improved attention spans after spending time in nature. Studies done with children with diagnosed attention deficits, found similar results with improved concentration and decreased impulsive behaviour following a period of time spent in a natural setting such as a walk in the park. Even views of green through a window specifically reduce attention-deficit symptoms. While outdoor activities in general help, settings with trees and grass are the most beneficial. Paying attention is easier when you’re actually doing something, rather than only considering how it might be done. One researcher writes, ―by bolstering children’s attention resources, green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress‖. Another researcher found that inventiveness and imagination of nearly all the creative peoples she studied was rooted in their early experiences in nature. One author states ―the child’s sense of wonder is aroused as a response to the mystery of the stimulus of nature …the power of the known and the unknown‖. Studies of children’s play in schoolyards found that children engaged in more creative forms of play in the green areas as compared to manufactured play areas. Researchers have also observed that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, they established their social hierarchy through physical competence; after an open grassy area was planted with shrubs, the quality of play in what the study termed ―vegetative rooms‖ was very different. Children used more fantasy play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language skills, creativity and inventiveness. Swedish studies found that children on asphalt playgrounds had play that was much more interrupted; they played in short segments. But in more natural playgrounds, children invent whole sagas that they carried from day to day to day – making and collecting meaning. Social One of the strongest benefits of experiences in nature is the awareness that we are all connected, that our actions all have reactions and consequences. Connecting with nature helps young children establish a sense of attachment – the building block of all future relationships. Nature teaches children about friendships, about diversity, about caring and responsibility, and about empathy. Studies have suggested that children who spend more time playing outdoors have more friends. Certainly the deepest friendships evolve out of shared experience, particularly in environments in which all the senses are enlivened. One reason for the emotional benefits of nature may be that green space fosters social interaction and thereby promotes social support. Martha Erickson, a leading scholar in attachment research writes: ―children’s experience with the natural world seems to be overlooked to a large extent in the research on child development, but it would be interesting to examine children’s early experiences with nature and follow how those experiences influence the child’s long-term comfort with and respect for the natural world – comfort and respect being concepts that are central to the study of parent-child attachment.‖ Given the power of nature to calm and soothe us in our hurried lives, it also would be interesting to study how a family’s connection to nature influences the general quality of family relationships. Just as having a secure attachment to our parents or primary caregivers protects us from later pathologies, so could a secure attachment to Mother Earth. Ecological The positive effects of involvement with nature on health, concentration, creative play, and developing a bond with the natural world can form a foundation for environmental stewardship. Teaching children to be responsible stewards of the earth by watching videos about the dangers of pollution and the importance of recycling may actually be subtly supporting dissociation from nature. Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear, not joy and wonder. Children learn about the rain forest but not about the park just outside the classroom door, the chipmunks that live in the trees, the beetles that live in the dirt, nature they can study close at hand. Surely children need a quality attachment to land not only for their own health, but in order to feel compelled to protect nature as adults – not only as common-sense conservationists, but also as citizens and as voters. We may fear the outdoors, but kids may generally face more dangers in their own home. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now warns that indoor air pollution is the number one environmental threat to health – and it is two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. A child indoors is more susceptible to spores of toxic molds growing under that plush carpet; or bacteria or allergens carried by household vermin, more carbon monoxide, radon and lead dust. The allergen level of newer sealed buildings can be as much as two hundred times greater than that of older structures. Indoor play areas such as ball-pits and playgrounds have the potential of spreading serious infectious diseases. To quote the words of the late Edward Reed from his book ―The Necessity of Experience‖, ―there is something wrong with a society that spends so much money, as well as countless hours of human effort—to make the least dregs of processed information available to everyone everywhere and yet does little or nothing to help us explore the world for ourselves‖. For further reading try Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv or Children and Nature by Peter Kahn.
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