Are your kids really spending enough time outdoors?

Getting up close with nature opens a child's eyes to the wonders of the world, with a bounty of health benefits.

By Tammie Burak

Childhood development

Get outside
Despite Canada's international reputation for being the epitome of wilderness, most Canadian children never actually experience the wild spaces around them. They're much more likely to be spending their time racking up virtual knowledge from electronic sources.

So, while our three kids are splashing after frogs in ditches this spring, other Canadian youngsters will be sitting in front of computer screens merely reading about tree frogs. That's unfortunate, because they're missing out on a lot -- including improved physical, psychological, social and spiritual development.

Physical development
Being connected to nature can help keep more kids in shape. Recognizing that, Evergreen is incorporating natural features into traditional playgrounds. In addition to asphalt and flat lawns, a naturalized playground may incorporate hills, gardens and trees. “When you're designing and then implementing a natural playground, you're diversifying the landscape,” says Collyer. This kind of layout is great for kids who want to run and catch balls but also for those who prefer to dig in the dirt, have a pretend picnic or watch butterflies.

This diversified landscape doesn't just engage boys, either. While traditional playgrounds are more conducive to aggressive boy-play than to the kind of play that typically attracts girls, naturalized playgrounds appeal to boys and girls equally.

And research suggests that activities encouraged in the naturalized playground -- such as gardening or nature-watching -- are more likely to be carried over into adult life and can be helpful in the fight against obesity.

Psychological development
Nature also helps kids function better mentally. Studies show that just being exposed to views of green grass or trees can improve memory, concentration and grades.

Nature can also reduce symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Our son Samuel, who has been diagnosed with short attention span with overactivity, has difficulty focusing his attention while doing school work. He's distracted by what's going on around him and is constantly fidgeting. But when he's outside in nature, he's a different child.

Recently, while rock-hopping on the shoreline at Belcarra Regional Park near Port Moody, B.C., he found a starfish in the sand and picked it up. He studied it closely, turning it over, touching its bumpy skin and suction cups. He examined it for a long time, far longer than the rest of us cared to stay and watch it. Suddenly, he had the longest attention span of anyone in the group.

Kids with ADHD appear to do better at focused activities such as homework after spending time in parks or other natural settings, according to Frances Kuo, the director of the University of Illinois landscape and human health laboratory in Urbana, Ill. Her survey of 450 parents of ADHD children showed that activities in relatively “green” outdoor settings consistently reduced symptoms more than similar activities indoors or even activities in other outdoor (but less natural) settings, such as a basketball court. “Children with ADHD may concentrate better after a dose of nature,” says Kuo.

Social development
Just watch students interact on naturalized school grounds. Instead of bullying and competing for the same climbing apparatus at recess, they might be playing a friendly game of hide-and-seek around the trees. Teachers spend less time disciplining as a result. Collyer attributes this change to children being more active and less bored. “When there's less boredom, there's less aggressive behaviour because it's often boredom that's the leading edge to aggression,” he says.

Nature also seems to soothe the psyche and ease tensions, paving the way for improved communication and closer bonding with others. Sisters Marie Jerome, Grace Espedido and Mary Ann Espedido cherish the nature-based family holidays they regularly plan together. On a recent family camping trip on Vancouver Island, nine cousins ranging in age from three to 13 chased one another across the beach, played baseball with driftwood and swam together in the bracing surf.

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