Importance of Nature in Child Development
Most reports claim that today’s kids are more disconnected from nature than ever. Part of the explanation may be the amount of time that children spend indoors, either at home or school, and then the number of hours they spend doing pre-arranged and structured activities such as clubs, lessons, or athletics. To complicate matters further, most kids would choose being connected online and in a digital world over playing outside.
However, parents should be aware of the importance of nature in their child’s development, including physical health and cognitive well-being. This doesn’t have to involve scheduled hikes or rugged camping trips, but simply being present outdoors and enjoying all the learning opportunities, experiences, and benefits that nature has to offer.
Spending time in nature provides children with unique sensory experiences. This includes sights, sounds, smells, and textures that can’t be replicated indoors. Nature is a catalyst for stimulating a child’s curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, even at a very early age. Here are some ideas for enhancing your child’s sensory experience in nature:
- Take a walk: Taking a walk with your child is not only good for exercise and fresh air, but it allows you both to use your senses to explore the environment. Even if your child is in a stroller, you can point out animals, trees, or flowers that you see. This helps with language acquisition, categorization, and comparisons of size, colors, and shapes. Walking allows for quiet moments as well to hear and smell the natural world. You can also encourage your child to notice and feel the texture of grass and leaves or the briskness of a gust of wind.
- Take a picture: One of the most fascinating and stimulating aspects of nature is how it changes. You and your child can take a picture of the same area during each season and compare the differences. You can even create a collage of how each season brings with it different sensory experiences. For example, winters generally feel cold, spring typically brings more chatter among birds and animals, fall features vibrant colors, and summer usually smells of cut grass.
Unlike time spent indoors, especially in front of digital screens, nature is unpredictable moment to moment in terms of what we see, hear, smell, and feel. This unique sensory experience of being outdoors is both interesting and calming to children of all ages, as they experience life around them in the natural world as opposed to a virtual one.
Humans are struggling more than ever to connect with the environment and each other in positive ways. Spending time in nature helps children develop deep connections with the earth and the natural life cycle. Nature, just like humans, can be simultaneously beautiful and harsh. These natural cycles and patterns help kids develop an awareness of how precious living things are, therefore inspiring them to treat life forms with respect—from budding flowers to animals and birds to the planet itself.
In addition, spending time in nature allows children to form connections that would not happen inside their home. For example, they may meet other kids outside and become playmates, or they may develop a friendship with a neighbor who also enjoys being outdoors. These connections are learning opportunities and reflect the benefits of true diversity among people, as opposed to perceiving others through a screen image.
Many parents and grandparents might tell stories about “the good old days,” when everyone would play outside from sunrise until the streetlights came on with no adult supervision or interference. It’s true that today’s children are more “nature distant” than past generations, and there are some good reasons for this. Ultimately, parents want their children to be safe, and much more is known today about the importance of regular hydration, limited sun and heat exposure, and other risks that come with being outdoors, unsupervised, for lengthy periods.
However, sheltering and giving kids no freedom to explore their outside environment is not healthy for their development either. Parents who limit their children from spontaneous and independent exploration of nature may risk, however unintentionally, giving the impression that the outside is something to fear or avoid. This includes restricting kids to playing in what some call “manufactured” or “manicured” outdoor play areas in which the setting is nearly as clean, structured, and “nature-free” as being indoors.
Thankfully, there are safe ways to remain in the middle of such extremes. Depending on the age and development of the child, parents can establish boundaries for time spent outdoors and distance away from home. In addition, most cities and suburbs feature parks with play equipment as well as grassy areas for kids to explore. Day trips to a beach or lake are also fun for enjoying a different type of nature, as long as parents maintain water safety for everyone. Balance is the key, and parents can provide a healthy model of safely embracing nature in all its forms so that kids don’t feel insecure, overwhelmed, or uncertain about being outdoors.
At Cognisprings, we support parents and their children with thoughtfully designed and unique games, books, and puzzles to enhance learning about the world and create memories of shared experiences. Our products foster creativity, exploration, and screen-free fun for healthy development in children of all ages.