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Turning the tide: Reconnecting kids to nature

By Cathy Jordan

Today's youth are the first generation to be more connected to electronic devices than to the outdoors and the natural world. As adults, today's young people will likely identify as indoor types rather than outdoor types.

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.
  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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)
  6. Nature play = creative play: Play in natural settings is more varied, elaborate and creative (Burdette 2005).
  7. 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?

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  1. Hi Cathy, this is a very interesting Blog topic. Could you comment on the natural environment for families living in low income urban communities? I have heard at past conferences where people discussed the issue of nature/green space and child development as a middle-class value. Just would like your thoughts on this.

  2. Thanks for the question Mary. It's very true that there are some special challenges around connecting kids to nature in the context of low-income urban communities. Lack of green space in their communities (around their homes and around their schools) is one. Parental concern about their children's safety when outdoors in their community, due to community violence, is another. These are very real issues.
    It's also likely that parents who have grown up without such access are less likely to "value" giving their children those experiences (either through family activities or through the decision they make about where to send their children to school). There is also often some fear of nature, or at least discomfort, in families who have not had nature experiences. I had not heard the "middle class values" comment, as something separate from the above factors.
    I think it may be most beneficial if we think about the challenges families living in low-income, urban communities might face and the context that these communities create for families. Tapping into cultural values around connecting to nature or preserving the earth (such as in the American Indian community, among others) can help us see connecting to nature as consistent with cultural/class values, but something that is made harder in the low-income, urban context.
    Mary, do you know more about the middle class values comment - is it based on research, or the knowledge of practitioners working in urban communities? What do you think about it?

  3. What a great and timely discussion. Wondering what support these lower-income, urban communities might benefit most from. When I consider this group, I often think about the increased academic performance that happens when teachers are trained well (and that's key) to use the environment as a context for learning. This means taking classes outdoors on a regular basis (and it doesn't have to be to a nature preserve--just out the door is often enough) and making strong, intentional connections to the curriculum. I think if we could somehow get institutional support for teachers to use the outdoors frequently, ALL families and children would benefit, but it would be especially beneficial for learners in underserved, "challenged" communities. It would be wonderful to see a school of education begin a long-term research study on the academic benefits of outdoor/environmental learning for underserved populations. We have lots of solid evidence that learning is improved and social skills are improved, among other things. But I do think this is something that will take a long time to "permeate" the culture deeply enough that it becomes a part of most schools' overall approaches to learning.

  4. Hi Cathy and Patty,
    Great discussion. Cathy, in terms of your last question...the comments were mostly from practitioners working in urban, high poverty areas. Their point, (I am only summarizing what I recall), was not only lack of accessible SAFE, green-space areas (again, a disparity), but that this is yet another thing that poor working parents living in high poverty areas are being told children need, but have to weigh against other safety, hunger, etc. Now if I can summarize a quote.."if they are hungry, running around in grass and sunshine is the last thing these families are thinking about" so we are reminding them again what resources they are lacking to best support child development.
    Now my personal thinking is 100% with the importance of reengaging children with nature. That is why I really laud your post as well as Patty's comment. There is a system's perspective to your posts. It is about the community, its' the institutions like schools that kids connect with, it's about urban planning, etc. I also appreciate your comment about the American Indian Communities and their cultural values around preserving and honoring nature. Several years back, I was able to talk to Elders at White Earth about core youth development competencies...they noted that traditional lists of youth development competencies lacked connection to nature, which they believed was one of the most important youth competency. Learning to respect nature will in turn, teach young people to respect humans, because they will come to understand the humans are a part of was beautiful! Thanks again for this dialogue!

  5. Patty and Mary - thanks for your comments. I really do believe this is a systems issue. It's not just about parents. Professionals in early childhood programs, schools, youth programs, faith institutions, health care organizations/clinics (especially mental health), etc. could contribute to reconnecting kids with nature. My personal passion is related to what Patty mentioned - schools using the outdoors as their classrooms and making strong, intentional connections to the curriculum. Nature is a wonderful context to do interdisciplinary teaching, integrating math, science, humanities, art, etc.
    This is also a professional development issue. Professionals in these various settings need training and support (in their professional programs as well as through continuing education) to understand the connection between nature and developmental outcomes, health and wellness, etc., and then to apply that knowledge to their work.
    Does anyone know of any professional degree programs that address the importance of connectedness to nature?

  6. Hi Cathy,
    As both a youth worker and a parent of young children, I get caught in the either/or debate around technology and nature time. I think we can get caught in our thinking that technology is inherently bad, as we know that it can be a powerful teaching and learning tool. How then do we strike the balance and address the realities of youth that we will be working with? Surely technology and inside time will be part of their lives, but can technology be used to build nature connectedness? In other words, do you believe we can think of the two existing harmoniously together, building on each other?

  7. Sam - I definitely believe that we can harness the power of technology to enrich the children and nature connection, within reason. Smart phones and ipads can, for example, be used to navigate in nature, photograph something awe-inspiring, look up the name of a tree, record "data" from observations, identify a poisonous vs. safe mushroom, communicate with others about what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. in nature, and much, much more.
    The challenge and the opportunity is to help kids use their technology to enhance, not to detract from or distract from, their nature experience, or worse - keep them sitting on the couch. Do they have the ipod playing so loudly through their ear buds that they can't hear the bird calls, the rustle of the leaves or the sounds of water or wind? That isn't good. Or are they using their smart phone to capture a bird call and identify the species? That's different, and GOOD!

  8. Thanks Cathy for once again bringing this important issue to the community. Have very much enjoyed and agreed with what has been posted thus far.
    As you know my wife and I started our own nature-based preschool program. All of the benefits you listed above I can say I whole-heartedly have seen in action. Especially that play piece. Kids play differently in nature – there is more creativity and collaboration. It encourages a sense of wonder, and most importantly, a sense of adventure and spirit. And man, when I think about what our future workforce needs to be competitive (or what I would look for in a new hire), it is creativity, collaboration and spirit (or what some may call “drive”) that top the list. And nature develops and encourages those skills authentically, not in a “learn it for the test” type of way.
    Which I think gets to one of the challenges of nature (or even play-based) education with young children. The learning outcomes aren’t as clear-cut to measure as ABCs and 123s. It’s hard to convince parents/teachers that playing outside better prepares your kid for school than the rote-learning iPad app your 4 year old has mastered, because the nature gains are often hard to test, hard to put into words even, and they are longer-term. I think if more parents/teachers could trust the earth as a teacher, let down their fear a bit about the risks of play outdoors (especially play that is *gasp* not constantly supervised or “off the trail”), the youth/nature connection would be much more effective. Plus if you believe it is worth it, you’re more likely to take that “big leap” and put on all the gear, or walk/drive all the way to the nearest greenspace instead of choose the quick technology fix. Also, I think parents and educators need to embrace that often challenging transition to get outdoors as part of the life learning experience and something beneficial. Dressing oneself, doing the work vs the easy way out, pushing oneself to get from point A to point B, those are all great life lessons.
    Which brings to mind another challenge - appropriate gear to be outdoors. Kids and adults enjoy the outdoors more when they’re dressed for it, but quality outdoor clothing is expensive and a definite barrier for our changing and intense seasons in MN. We thrifted and handed-down to get gear for our program, but we also believed (and our families believed) that the investment in the quality outdoor goods was worth it, and more importantly, they could afford it. I think if there were grants or clothing exchange programs to get affordable and better outdoor gear to kids, especially in low-income areas, it could go a long way.
    I personally have lived in urban, lower income neighborhoods, and I can definitely say that kids are getting outdoors, even using the parks, but unfortunately the parks seriously lack nature elements. Another giant leap or urban or low-income areas/families to increase their use of nature would be to redesign the parks to be more "nature-centric" with more opportunities for interaction with natural elements and nature play. We need more people like Patty and Small Wonders designing our urban parks!
    But like many of you have said already, parents and teachers need to buy-in to the importance of the nature connection and walk the talk. The kids will follow.

  9. Thanks for your comments and reflections Mike. I think you are right on on all counts. I do think though that we can get a lot out of nature without a lot of gear. Sometimes people think that for kids to get anything out of nature it has to be wilderness, requiring lots of gear – boots, backpacks, camping gear, boats, etc. The research is mounting that “backyard nature” (especially for younger kids who don’t need as big an area to roam) and just access to looking at greenscapes has positive impact. The appropriate clothing is another thing. There is no bad weather, just bad clothing!, right?

  10. Great article. I've introduced my daughter to rock climbing as a way of getting her active as well as more aware of how much beauty is found in nature. She loves it and hates when it's the off season and she can't spend all of her time outside on the rock wall. Instead of letting her passion fall to the wayside in the off season, we go to the indoor climbing walls, preparing her for the great outdoors as soon as the weather clears up. I highly recommend introducing children to nature through rock climbing because it mentally and physically challenges them while offering them a love for the great outdoors.

  11. TIm - Rock climbing rocks! It's great exercise, and as you said, can be an outdoor sport and an indoor one when necessary. It's also something that multiple generations can do. I was up at Tettegouche a couple of summers ago and was watching the Vertical Endeavors cliff climbers. There was a group of three generations of girls/women. The head of the young daughter (maybe 10) popped over the top first. Her mother pulled herself over the ledge next. The two of them then offered moral support and lots of cheers for Grandma who brought up the rear. They looked like they were having a blast and all of them were proud of themselves for their accomplishment, for different reasons I think.

  12. Cathy,
    Great blog and happy to see you're still getting the message out about youth outdoors. In addition to my local foods work at MISA, I'm continuing to work with Wilderness Inquiry on the UWCA program to get 10,000 youth out on the Mississippi River wilderness each year. This year we're extending the program into career exposure and preparation in partnership with Minneapolis Step Up program, the parks departments of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hennepin County and the National Park Service. I look forward to seeing you later this month to talk more about this.

  13. Megan - thanks for all the good work you do in MN and beyond to connect kids to nature (and to good food!). You've been an inspiration to me and many others.


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