Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great Outdoors Vital to Children's Health and Education

As a city-mom shopping around for preschools, I've noticed several programs touting the kids' regular access to several acres of wilderness. One nursery school's website even features a large, colorful photograph of children running full force through a field dotted with mature trees and strewn with freshly-fallen leaves.

This emphasis on the importance of free play in nature has inspired my curiosity. Is there any hard evidence that children benefit more from playing in forest and field opposed to gym or playground? If so, what are those benefits?

One seemingly obvious benefit is to physical fitness. Indeed, there are great benefits to be had with certain types of video games, websites, board games, and many other indoor activities. But they are mostly sedentary activities. Simply being outside where there is much more space to move around in, and in nature where there tends to be more space in between points of interest compels a person to get more exercise.

In a couple of her articles on babycenter.com, anthropologist Gwen Dewar cites a few studies and provides some analysis of a potential connection between health and time spent in the great outdoors. In Kids outdoors: Beyond team spots and PE, she writes about how children in Amish and Mennoite communities tend to be leaner and stronger, and she suggests this is because of physically-engaging chores such as hauling water and chopping wood. Although Dewar is quick to point out that American children who merely live in more rural areas do not tend to be more physically fit. The idea, she insists, is to just get them outside doing anything, such as biking or hiking, rather than exclusively depending on organized sports or physical education classes to keep kids in shape. And in her article Parents stifle kids' active, outdoor play, Dewar discusses studies which suggest that more formal, adult-guided activities (opposed to free play with peers) results in kids being less active.

Much has been written about how adults in cities tend to be more active than their suburban counterparts. The simple fact that city folks have access to public transit or live within walking distance to many stores, banks, post offices, and such means that they at least walk more average steps in a day. When Morgan Spurlock went on his McDonald's diet for a month for the film Supersize Me, he also restricted his movement to that of the average American, and living in the city that meant often taking cabs where normally he would have done a combination of walking and public transit. However, does this mean city kids are also more active than rural and suburban kids? One study suggests that the opposite is true. As reported in this article:

The report, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, used data from a 2006 survey of school-aged children from grades 6 through 10 (ages 11 to 15). It looked at the physical activity patterns of 8,535 students from 180 schools across Canada, and then compared it to the 5-kilometre area surrounding each school. 
The study found that youth in the neighbourhoods of highest density and most connectivity between streets were less likely to be physically active outside school.
The problem is that, especially for younger children, adequate adult supervision in densely packed, narrow streets with numerous moving vehicles is difficult. Indeed, raising my toddler in the city I've found that I am not comfortable even walking a couple blocks to the pharmacy without putting her in a harness to prevent her from suddenly dashing into a busy road. (I get some funny looks doing so, but I'll take that over her getting hit by a car because I wasn't fast enough to grab her in time.) Children in suburbs and more rural areas tend to have large yards and can more safely take over quiet cul-de-sacs for biking, roller skating, and casual games of soccer. 
Beyond exercise, what other benefits could there be to children spending more time in nature? Recently a report in Scotland indicated that the creation of "Urban Jungles" (trees, boulders, and tunnels, opposed to more traditional playground equiptment) resulted in not only increased physical activity of the children, but less accidents and less bullying. 
Over a two week period in 2009 there were 76 accidents, one incident of bullying and 53 other incidents, which include pushing, hitting and slipping. 
A follow-up study in 2011 recorded six accidents and two cases of bullying. Both cases of bullying occurred when the natural play space was closed. 
Others are raising concerns that an increasing disconnect with nature leaves serious gaps in children's education that might diminish their ability to understand many concepts in science and environmental concerns.  One professor in West Australia has spoken out against the problem, particularly for city children

Dr How, who is also an adjunct professor at the school of anatomy and human biology at the University of WA, said the issue was a significant challenge to biodiversity education. 
He said this held serious consequences for children's health but also environmental conservation because the next generation could not protect and appreciate what they did not understand.  

There the State Government is spending two million dollars on a "Nature Play" program to encourage children to experience and learn about the outdoors. 

Recently, Michael D. Barton expressed many of the same concerns in guest article for the Foundation Beyond Belief's blog, titled Humanist Perspectives: Connecting Children to Nature. Barton writes about his concerns that education about evolution, the environment, and developing a personal connection to nature through first hand experience is lacking in public schools, and that as a parent he feels it is his responsibility to supplement his child's education in those areas. He does this not only by having lots of relevant books about, but by taking advantage of local parks and trails as well as nature programming at libraries and museums. He writes: 
To feel that we are a part of nature is crucial in thinking about how we want to treat this planet. 
It begs the question, can we learn all we need to know about the natural sciences from books, or is some amount of direct experience necessary? It is one thing to know something in theory. It is another to have experienced it. This is why we have children conduct hands-on experiments, dissect frogs and turn celery stalks funny colors by immersing them in cups of dyed water. Direct experience provides visuals, tactile sensations, sounds, smells, and tastes that allow us to more personally engage with the information we are taking in. These experiences also leave us with a more vivid memory. 

The more I read, the more I'm drawn to that preschool where the teachers and administrators brag about how the children go outside to freely roam the grounds every day, regardless of rain or snow. I love the city, and I'm proud and enthusiastic about raising my children in a place with so much culture, diversity, and sense of community. But I also want my kids to regard physical activity as something spontaneous and joyful, not only as scheduled, formal activities. I want them to know what it is to catch a fish or swim in a lake. When I teach them about Darwin and his theory of natural selection, I want them to be able to easily imagine the experiences that lead to the ideas, such as obsessively collecting beetles, and comparatively examining finches and tortoise shells on the Galapogos Islands. And I want my kids to experience the unique sense of awe and humility that comes with staring up at a sky full of stars, or standing in a forest of tall trees, or witnessing a gorgeous sunset, or gazing out at the endless blue of an immense body of water. I want them to love this earth with a deep and honest passion, so that acting to preserve our planet in its current state is not only rational, it's personal. 


  1. Thanks for sharing my FBB article!

  2. It's extremely important that kids stay active. The habits they develop while they are young are the ones they tend to keep when they reach adulthood. I think you've done a great job describing this importance in a way that non-health occupational parents will surely comprehend. Great job.

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