My sister and I were very lucky to have grandparents who lived in a small cottage on a countryside estate. As children, we would spend occasional weekends there without our parents. We would explore the fields, build bridges and splash in the brook or go on woodland adventures. I’m sure my grandma never let us out of her sight but she gave us enough autonomy to discover how we can use the great outdoors as our playground.
I recently went to visit them with my two boys. As soon as I stepped out of the car, into the soft and gentle countryside, I could feel my mind wander back to those days when life was quieter. Perhaps it was nostalgia or a pang of yearning to return to those care-free days once more.
Jack followed my granddad around the garden, in search of the friendly robin. He ran around on the grass and soaked up the freedom and space, just as my sister and I did many years ago.
He was tentative at first, wondering how far he would be allowed to go before me shouting ‘be careful’ as if he wasn’t sure how he should be with so much space and freedom. Yet as he eased into and quickly adjusted to this new environment, captured by what the countryside has to offer.
We live on the outskirts of a city in a fairly urbanised environment. My boys have to date grown up with the sound a bus going by every 5 minutes, quad bikes racing up and down the road, horns beeping and loud music blaring late into the night from nearby parties. Our local walks are less a stomp through the fields and more a mission to dodge-the-dog-mess.
Although the boys have never known anything different, I do. I’ve lived in this environment for over 10 years and the noise of semi-urban life still grates on my soul.
There are times when I feel suffocated by the urban sprawl. I have urges to be near green grass, fields, or see animals without having to pay to visit a farm.
Some people put it down to me not being a ‘city person’, and perhaps I’m not. But research shows our need to be close to nature is something deeper than preference.
In the 1980’s a Harvard University biologist, Edward Wilson proposed the theory called biophilia. This hypothesises that humans have a need to be connected to nature. It claims that we “have a love for the natural world, universally felt by all, and resulting at least in part from our genetic make-up and evolutionary history.”
Nature as a Health Buffer
When I visit my parents in their semi-rural home, I walk for miles around the village. I take every opportunity to replenish my lungs with fresh air. Furthermore, my anxiety eases and my head clears.
Nature has long been an essential health buffer which will be lost as we neglect our connection with the great outdoors.
Mardie Townsend, PhD, an honorary professor at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University in Australia thinks that in the last 250 years, we have struggled to adapt to the division from nature. She believes that mental health professionals should be prescribing time in nature as often as possible.
“There is mounting evidence that contact with nature has significant positive impacts on mental health,” said Townsend.
“It is associated with reduced levels of stress – which also has huge ramifications for physical health, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, increased engagement with learning for children and adolescents otherwise disengaged from the education system,” she told Psychiatry Advisor.
However, for nature to be prescribed, we need better access to green spaces.
“For this to happen, high-quality parks, gardens and nature reserves need to be nearby, served by good public transport, affordable, safe, attractive, with good signage and interpretive information, well managed and maintained, and accessible to people with different physical needs.”
“If we are to prevent an upsurge in mental health issues, especially among children, we need to re-engage humans with nature as a matter of urgency.”
Playing Outside Improves Child’s Happiness and Confidence
It was shocking to read that part of a 12-month government study found more than one in nine children in England have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.
Another report discovered that the average child spends less time outdoors than adult prisoners. Figures showed that 74 percent of children spent less than an hour outside, while almost a third of children play outdoors for 30 minutes or less a day. One in five children doesn’t play outside at all.
While these figures are shocking, I am not completely surprised. If you live on a busy road, don’t have a garden, live far from a park then getting that crucial outdoor time is difficult. For us, to go somewhere less built up usually means a trip out in the car.
I admit that it can sometimes feel like an effort with two young kids so it’s something we put off. It is another reason why I miss being somewhere a bit more rural; I would like to go out for a walk from our front door and not be worried about my kids running out in front of cars on the busy road.
Living on a busy street, being in a packed classroom or constant screen time can increase levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – in the body. Being outside can help get rid of this stress and regular access to fresh air is also linked to better sleep patterns.
A study by the University of Essex found just five minutes “green exercise” can produce fast improvements in mental health, wellbeing and self-esteem – especially in the young.
Free play outdoors gives children the opportunity to enhance problem-solving skills and gross motor skills. Emotionally it reduces anger and increases happiness. Whether it’s learning how to climb a tree or for my sister and me, how to build a bridge over a brook; being outside encourages you to test and trust your instincts.
Child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron said “The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with risks and challenges they will go to face as adults.
“Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when they are trying things out in the open.”
Furthermore, children can soak up a natural source of vitamin D from the sunlight, which enhances moods by aiding the release of serotonin into the brain.
Nature Deficit Disorder
Nature Deficit Disorder was a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. He argues that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors which makes us feel more alienated from nature and more vulnerable to negative moods.
“Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. This disorder can be detected in individuals, families and communities.”
He warned that “nature is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life.”
Also noting that “spare time in the garden, either digging out, setting out, or weeding, there is no better way to preserve your health.”
“The physical exercise and emotional stretching that children enjoy in unorganized play is more varied and less time-bound than is found in organized sports. Playtime—especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play—is increasingly recognized as an essential component of wholesome child development.”
How to Reconnect With the Great Outdoors
Being outdoors creates a sense of wonder and feeds your child’s senses and enriches the human experience. Whether it’s the smell of freshly cut grass, searching for insects or digging holes with sticks – there is no better substitute for being outside for creating long-lasting memories.
Research shows that simply looking at nature through a window has a positive effect on the viewer. For example, patients in hospitals who have a view of groves of trees have a faster recovery time and less pain medication than those facing an exterior wall.
Even in an office environment, a study has shown that employees who can see trees, bushes or lawns experience less frustration and were happier in their job than those without.
And these results were duplicated in children. A study found that the more nature surrounding a child’s home and could be viewed from their window, the better the child’s mental well-being and ability to deal with stress.
“Our data also suggest little ceiling effect with respect to the benefits of exposure to the nature environment,” said researchers
“Even in a rural setting with a relative abundance of green landscape, more appears to be better when it comes to bolstering children’s resilience against stress or adversity.”
While we all may not be able to afford to move somewhere with a view of rolling hills, there are a few things we can do to enhance our natural environment. Add colourful potted plants or fruit trees if you have a small yard, add window plants or bring nature indoors with plants.
To connect with nature, Louv believes it’s less the grand gesture and more the smaller daily interactions, even if it’s exploring your own garden.
“Expeditions to the mountains or national parks often pale, in a child’s eyes, in comparison with the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac.”
Let your children get dirty and give them space to play independently to help increase their sense of wonder.
Go outside to a park or go on an urban trail, explore animal tracks or if safe to do so, take a night time walk when nature will be that bit more mysterious or magical.
While we may never manage to live in an idyllic setting the middle of the countryside, with cows chewing on the grass near the gate, the sound of birds chirping in the air, there are ways to build pockets of nature where we are. The scenery doesn’t have to be picture perfect, all I want for my children is the opportunity to toddle along near trees and explore.
Here are a few ways I’m going to help nurture their love for nature
– Do some gardening
– Keep a nature journal
– Take pictures
– Allow them to get dirty
– Explore little hidden places
– Go for a walk and make the child the navigator
– Enjoy the rainy weather
– Go on a bear hunt
– Overturn rocks and look for minibeasts
– Cook outside
– Start a small vegetable garden
– Dig in the mud
– Go camping
– Sleep outside
– Have picnics
– Take indoor activities outside – such as painting, playing instruments, writing or drawing
– Look at the clouds
– Look at the stars
– Build an outdoor den
– Make a daisy chain
– Play pooh sticks
– Skim stones
– Pick strawberries and blackberries
– Climb a big hill
How do you help your children reconnect with nature?