In a world of video games, television, and social media, there has been a cultural shift in the way our children play and interact with one another. In addition to changes in their socialization patterns, there have been significant changes in the environments in which they play as well! Playing outside used to be one of the only ways that children experienced entertainment, but now it seems like parents are begging their children to go outside and kick a ball around for a while! This shift in play style and environment isn’t just changing their social relationships and they ways they connect with others, it is also impacting their lives from a more biological perspective; children are not getting as much time outdoors experiencing fresh air, sunshine, and other benefits of being out in nature that are so important for their physical and mental health!
Studies have long stated that exposure to the outdoors may associated with better physical health and mental health, not to mention cognitive development, or the ability to think clearly, focus, and make good decisions. A recent study was conducted to determine if exposure to natural landscapes as a child could have an effect on these areas of health well into adulthood and what it found was interesting. “The results showed that adults who were less exposed to natural spaces during their childhood had lower scores in mental health tests, compared to those with higher exposure”. This study also showed that children need time in nature that isn’t restricted to school yards and streets, but places with rich green spaces like gardens, forests, and parks, in addition to more blue spaces like canals, ponds, creeks, rivers, lakes, and beaches.
Many studies have shown common results to this one, and more studies are being conducted to look at the benefits that nature and physical activity in nature can have on a child’s physical and emotional health. Interacting with nature has been seen as a way to help improve symptoms related to many mental health diagnoses, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, etc. Other studies have shown that time in nature can help improve memory and logic or problem-solving skills. As a result, nature therapy is something that has begun to be provided to children and adults alike to help them foster some of the benefits of the great outdoors and learn some coping skills to manage negative thoughts and feelings in the process.
There are a lot of reasons why children do not have the same access to the outdoors as they have in previous generations. The sheer fact that there is more availability for entertainment in the home now thanks to the evolution of technology is an obvious fact, but there are other reasons that may not seem so obvious. Increased population of people has led to more urban city environments and less direct access to nature. Some would have to travel miles away from their home to see grass, trees, or water around them, as they are surrounded by the concrete jungle of city life. In addition to this, safety concerns have obviously increased over the years and allowing children unrestricted access to the outdoors is generally frowned upon by parents these days, for fear that a child could get hurt or mistreated unsupervised.
While all of these concerns are valid to some degree, the studies are clear that it is important for parents to prioritize unstructured free play outdoors for their children. Making it a part of your weekly routine can help to prioritize the need for children to get the fresh air and creative play that they need to have healthy and happy minds and bodies.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events