In today’s world of technology and social media overload, our children are becoming more sedentary and nature deprived than any other generation before.

Today’s children and families have limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment.

Richard Louv, author of “The Last Child in the Woods,” called this phenomenon “nature-deficit disorder” and opened the nation’s eyes to the developmental effects that nature has on our children. Louv documented how the modern family life has drastically changed in the last two decades. Children spend more time on the computer, watching television, playing video games and being less physically active outdoors. Families are eating more processed foods with high calorie intake due to their busy schedules. Families sitting down to a home cooked meal are rare these days. So naturally with less activity and the intake of high calorie fast food, childhood obesity is at an all time high in our country.

There have been numerous scientific research studies done over the last decade that illustrate the benefits of connecting with nature. Collectively, this research shows that spending time in nature and being more physically active, positively impact a child’s psychological, physical and social health, as well as academic achievement.

  • Increased self-reliance and independence
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Increased motivation
  • Better health
  • Enhanced communication skills
  • Increased outdoor skills
  • Better grades
  • Score higher on tests
  • Better attitudes towards the environment
  • Better overall behavior

When the benefits are significantly numerous, it only makes good sense to reconnect our children with nature and encourage them to become more physically active. As educators, it needs to be our goal to provide more outdoor learning areas that allow students to connect with the natural environment and become more physically active.

Outdoor learning areas should be designed so children can test their abilities in an environment that offers different types of challenges and stimulation. Hands-on learning experiences benefit the majority of students far better than learning in the traditional classroom setting. Natural outdoor settings provide that alternative through experimental learning and exploration of the world around us. The best way to learn is by doing.

In preschools and early childhood, we make sure outdoor learning opportunities are there because they are essential to the healthy development of young children. Sand and water play promotes sensory development and child-initiated activities. Cascading water invites pouring, mixing, and draining small toys and other objects from the environment. Sand promotes digging, building and sculpting. There is time for those types of activities at that age. But it doesn’t need to stop there. Learning needs to provide hands-on, fun, outdoors experiences beyond our preschool years.

Nature and/or wooded areas create hands-on opportunities for learning and living laboratories for children. Turning over rocks to discover insect life underneath, finding bird nests, observing minnows and tadpoles in a nearby creek bed or stream, and utilizing other things found in natural settings can be a wealth of knowledge for children. Children of all ages can learn an abundance of subject matter by simply taking the classroom outdoors. It’s all there — the way our eco-system works, insect and animal habitats, where our food comes from, types of clouds, weather patterns and more.

Gardens and planting areas provide opportunities for children to plants seeds and watch them grow. Children learn from watching the planting process and gain a sense of accomplishment through nurturing the garden.

“Loose parts” areas provide opportunities for building, learning cause and effect relationships, and team work. Loose parts areas also provide opportunities for children to use their imagination and be innovative. Loose parts areas can include various items, both manmade and natural “things or stuff.”

In addition to the academic outdoor learning opportunities we provide, we need to increase the amount of physical activity of children. Traditional physical education classes are not enough. Not all children are going to be great athletes that excel at sports and physical fitness standards, nor do they really have the determination or drive to participate in a competitive sporting environment. By making physical education classes and physical fitness fun, we can increase children’s movement and encourage a more active healthy lifestyle for years to come.

We all know playgrounds promote physical fitness, overall child development, and fun. In most schools, physical education classes are only taught once or twice a week, but play equipment can create an opportunity for children to benefit from a standards-based physical education curriculum every school day. Teacher-led play can transform a playground into an outdoor physical education class.

Challenge and obstacle course activities are one of the fastest growing trends in outdoor recreation. Find an obstacle course program that is designed to engage children and families to become more fit together. Outdoor fitness concepts encourage physical activity, fitness and competition combined with an added element of precision timing. Classes and/or groups of students can compete; or students can challenge themselves to become more fit and improve their own personal times.

These types of outdoor learning activities can easily be worked into curriculum and lesson plans. Spending time in nature makes our children better stewards of the earth’s resources. Spending time in nature is refreshing, inspiring and nurturing. Teaching our children to be more physically fit and encourage healthy lifestyles will serve them well for years to come.

Michele Breakfield is Director of Marketing at Cunningham Recreation.

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