One of my passions is connecting children and youth to nature. When I speak to adult groups about this topic I often ask the audience to think of a favorite memory from childhood. I then ask for a show of hands. "Raise your hand if your memory involved the natural world." A huge majority raises their hands. But if I were to ask the youth of today that question 20 or 30 years from now, they would be much less likely to think of a memory involving nature.
As we only protect what we know and love, this generation will grow up to be less likely to value our natural resources and to engage in preservation and conservation. Their disconnection from nature will lead to future generations that are at least as disconnected, unless we intervene, and intervene now.
There are also lots of developmental reasons to reconnect youth to nature.
- Nature-based play and recreation in groups encourages the development of social skills: Pro-social behaviors and quality of social interactions increase when children spend time in nature (Burdette 2005; Cottrell 2010).
- Access to nature improves concentration and attention: Youth who have access to green spaces, or simply more natural views from their windows, are better able to concentrate. Those with ADHD demonstrate fewer symptoms after a walk in nature or time to play in nature (Faber Taylor 2011; Kuo 2004; Wells 2000).
- Nature boosts achievement: Students achieve at higher levels (e.g. on reading, math and language tests) when they receive instruction that uses the environment as a context for learning (Matsouka 2008; Lieberman 1998).
- Nature-based activity promotes fitness and health: From increasing physical activity levels for the prevention of obesity, to decreasing asthma symptoms, to easing the symptoms of depression and anxiety, to improving nearsightedness, outdoor activity is good for youth's physical and mental health and well-being (McCurdy 2010; Kimbro 2011; Cooper 2010; Brown 2009; Rose 2008).
- Nature-based play and recreation improve physical abilities and coordination: Youth who play, run and climb among trees and rocks and who move over uneven ground develop stronger skills in motor coordination, balance and agility than those who play on flatter terrain, or inside (Fjοrtoft, 2004)
- Nature play = creative play: Play in natural settings is more varied, elaborate and creative (Burdette 2005).
- Time in nature busts stress and improves emotional health: Youth are more calm and happy and demonstrate more resilience the more they are exposed to green spaces and natural environments (Bowler 2010; Wells 2003).
An important distinction to keep in mind is the difference between nature-based activities and other activities that might take place outdoors, such as sports practices or games. Although sports participation has many benefits, some of which overlap with nature-based activities (such as fitness and health), such activities will not produce the same benefits as nature play.
Connecting our young people to nature is a win for youth and a win for nature. It enhances youths' development in multiple domains as well as increases the likelihood that they will come to love the natural world and take action to protect it.
How does your work connect youth to nature? What benefits have you observed as a result? What challenges have you faced? What do you need to be able to more effectively connect youth to nature?
University of Minnesota Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium
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