Family adventures in the great outdoors are an American summertime tradition. It’s an ideal time for dads to introduce their kids to the wonders and benefits of nature.
While my kids are on their summer break from school, I’ve taken the opportunity to take them out for some trout fishing at the lake a few minutes from our home. Several minutes can pass while we wait for fish to bite. In this in-between times, we benefit from the natural surroundings of towering evergreen fir and cedar trees reflecting off the water, the sounds of birds calling as they glide across the blue sky overhead, and fresh air filling our lungs.
But there’s more than aesthetic appreciation taking place while our senses take in the beauty of God’s creation. Research has also identified a number of benefits to kids’ character development and well-being that come from spending time in nature.
The greatest benefits from time in the outdoors are for kids who get frequent exposure to natural settings, not only during summer vacation. Too many children don’t get beyond the boundaries of the human-made environments they live in often enough.
The National Kids Survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service on children ages six to 19 years old concluded that only one in three kids regularly spend time in nature-based activities, such as bird watching and wildlife viewing. Participation in nature-based activities was highest among kids age six to nine, and trended downward as kids got older.
Parents play an important role in teaching their kids to value time in nature. With this in mind, my wife and I moved our family out of the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, a few years ago. We settled in rural country just beyond Portland’s metro area. Here my kids are daily immersed in a green space of forest and pastureland where we care for our small herd of Boer goats, some beehives, and a garden of vegetables, berries and fruit trees.
But giving a child access to the benefits of nature doesn’t require moving away from the city or suburbs. Dads and moms can plan family outings, not only in summertime, but throughout the year, to natural settings just minutes from where they live now.
Most cities and suburban communities in the United States have greenspaces within their borders in the form of parks, arboretums, and public gardens, where parents and kids can sit on a bench, play, walk, bike or explore. Also, oceans, lakes, streams and hiking trails are often close enough for a weekend getaway.
You can think of the time and effort devoted to getting your child into natural surroundings as an investment in positive character development and their well-being. Here are a few of the greatest returns on that investment that researchers have identified.
1. Increased autonomy and generosity.
Psychologists define autonomy as the freedom of self-expression that aligns with personal values. Exposure to natural settings tends to decrease the restraining power of fear, social pressure and expectations on self-expression that limit autonomy. Kids can be themselves.
Exposure to natural settings also tends to increase acts of generosity, in contrast to exposure to human-made environments, which increases acts of selfishness.
These findings were made by researchers from the University of Rochester, and documented in their article, “Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity,” published in Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin.
2. Increased problem-solving skills.
Dr. Stephen Kellert of Yale University highly regards the influence of natural settings to inspire creative play in kids, developing their ability to innovate and develop solutions to problems.
Kellert has documented this and other findings on his study of benefits of nature on children in his book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection.
3. Improved social skills.
Children who spend time in nature are happier and demonstrate greater ability to get along with others, say researchers Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker. Their findings emphasize the importance of getting children outdoors while they’re preschool age, and encouraging play that involves their whole body.
Burdette and Whitaker’s research is addressed in their article, “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect,” in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
4. Lowered stress levels.
According to psychologists Nancy Wells and Gary Evans, when highly stressed kids are surrounded by green-spaces and natural vistas, their stress levels are reduced. They also conclude that “more is better,” meaning that the greater the relative abundance of greenspace in a child’s surroundings, the more benefits a child receives.
The research findings of Wells and Evans were published in the journal Environment and Behavior in their article, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.”
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What are you doing to get yourself and your kids into nature? Let me know with a Facebook Message, Voicemail, or a Comment below.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.