All toddlers will have food riots from time to time. If my kids are rebelling against their veggies, all I have to do is get them back outside, eating delicious wild greens such as greenbrier, sassafras, violets (in photo above), shepherd’s purse, or sheep sorrel. Most of these veggies are available year yard in our yards and particularly palatable to young kids as well as grown-ups.
Gardening takes work. Buying organic greens also takes time and money. Wild edible plants, on the other hand, often can be eaten raw on the spot, or simply washed and eaten in a salad.
Kids love running around, gathering plants. It’s something humans are wired to do as a carry-over from our ancestors. Putting a handful of wild greens or flowers in their mouths to eat just makes sense to kids – much more fun than trying to force them to sit and eat a salad at a table.
Buying, washing, cooking, or munching on a salad takes time. Why not forage outside while you’re on a walk, playing, or reading a book outside?
Hunter-gatherer diets used to be incredibly varied with hundreds of plants eaten each year. Although hunter-gatherer people had to experience many hardships, such as war, weather pattern changes, and disease, most agree their diet was healthier and studies suggest they had fewer rates of colds and allergies, were physically stronger and faster and had better vision. Striving to move closer (although, without the hardships) to a natural, human diet and lifestyle is better for everyone and grows stronger kids!
Sometimes, kids who are obsessed with a movie, tv show, or video game might just need an adult mentor to help them take their favorite characters outside.
My younger daughter loves Dora The Explorer, which we normally read in books, but she has seen a few of the TV shows. If I repeat some of the silly, Spanish phrases from the shows, it helps get her running around and talking (in Spanish!) outside.
My older daughter loves the Lion King. Sometimes, she’ll play games based on the movie. Rather than steer her away from TV-themed imaginative play entirely, I play along with her, pretending to be one of the characters on TV, which in my case is normally the bad guy, Scar, or a hyena. They quickly squeal with excitement and laughter, running and hiding until I catch them.
This imaginative play helps bridge a gap between indoor, digital technology and the actual world outside, which will help her make that mental and physical leap continuing on into the future, encouraging enough off-the-couch-time.
Also, for a parent or adult mentor to kids, it’s helpful to play along and talk about the things kids love, even if it is on the screen. Avoiding it, disparaging it, or ignoring it in order to spend quality time in nature may actually create a disconnect between kids and their adult mentors.
Encouraging reenactment play based on their beloved characters outside shows them that I love them and support their interests.
When I was a kid, I LOVED Tarzan more than anything else on TV and it was one of my dad’s favorites too. In many ways, I was destined to love nature as this preference suggests, but I know watching something neat on TV and then reenacting it outside was one of the early activities that helped get me off the couch and into nature and loving it!
Parents also can steer kids into watching and liking movies and shows that motivate outside time, teach morals, or are educational by restricting or avoiding ones that don’t fall into those categories.
Recess is about more than just exercise. It’s time to calm down and process the learning they just had in class. It’s time to bond with classmates and play imaginative games. It’s time to run, play, and relax.
The other day, I was surprised to find out recess in my own school district for Kindergarten is only 30 minutes a day. They have a full school day too, 6 hours long. Here, I though Kindergarten would be all fun and games and a gradual transition to school.
Here are the top 10 reasons why kids need more recess:
I’m amazed time and time again by how much my kids LOVE backyard camp outs. To kids who are 2 and 5, simply setting up a tent in the backyard and sleeping in it is a great adventure. If you have a backyard that isn’t quite suitable for overnight camping, you might want to consider setting up a small tent and pretending to camp out for the night.
My older daughter was beyond herself with excitement when we camped out the last time, which was surprising to me since we go into our forest almost every day. To kids and adults, there is something special about sleeping under the trees to the sound of frogs singing and coyotes yipping that helps connect you to the earth and embrace your true self.
Another benefit that surprises me is how much exercise I get every time I do this. It’s a small hike from our house to our designated fire circle and campsite, but I need to carry down a lot of gear for a proper, two night camp out. So, the last time I did this, I walked back and forth probably 10 times carrying a cooler of food, cooking pots, sleeping bags, tent, and water. Then, I carried 2 dozen rocks to build up our fire circle, logs to sit on, and firewood to start our fire. I realized this was more fun and just as much exercise as I normally get from going to the gym. Plus, I was spending time with my kids!
After eating a dinner the kids loved helping to prepare, I quickly made up a story about an owl who was waking up that very moment in the forest and would soon be hunting for food. My older daughter’s eyes grew big and she excitedly asked me what the owl would do next.
I couldn’t believe it! Telling a simple story in the woods over a camp fire also made her enjoy my stories more. Normally, she barely reacts to my real-life stories of near-death experiences or where I was close enough to touch wild beaver kits or deer.
Immediately after the story, my older daughter said, “I’m tired. I want to go to bed now.” This too is unusual for her. We hadn’t adjusted well to daylight savings time and camping out corrected our circadian rhythm. The next morning, by the time we cooked pancakes over the fire and headed back up to the house, it was only 8:30! I realized it might be easier to camp out there every night and make it to preschool on time.
Explore. Play. Learn.
Join us in this outdoor classroom in Glen Allen, VA.
Nature is essential to growing healthy, competent children. Time in the backyard, going to a park, gardening, or exploring an abandoned woodlot all count as time in nature. For children under 5, an hour or two daily in the backyard might be enough to meet their needs. For children 5 and up, I highly recommend taking your kids into the actual wilderness, such as beaches, deserts, or forests, as often as possible, though at least several times a year.
Although the list of benefits of nature for kids could go on forever, here are the top 15:
1. Improves Attention Spans
Studies are showing that the average attention span for humans has now dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Yes, those computers that help us think, connect us and bring us news are bringing negative consequences that we’ve all probably noticed – a harder time focusing on one thing.
However, there is a solution. Get outside, slow down, and smell the roses!
2. Encourages Kids to Use All of Their Senses
When children use all of their senses, they build and strengthen neural connections in their brain which will help them form stronger pathways, which encourages memory. In other words, the more senses they use while learning something, the more likely they will remember it later.
3. Reduces Stress
In studies of adults, a wilderness walk reduces cortisol, a stress hormone, by 16%. In my own life, I witness daily how a simple walk in the woods reduces my stress level and my kids are in a better mood for the rest of the day.
Even sitting by a window with a view of a natural area can help reduce stress.
4. Builds Gross Motor Skills
Kids need to be active and taking them outside into a natural area encourages movement. Hiking, games, scavenger hunts, or just going outside without a plan at all will all motivate a child to play and get lots of exercise.
5. Encourages Curiosity
Lately, when my younger daughter sees a hawk or a vulture she gets very excited. I help feed her curiosity by asking easy questions for her, without giving away what species it is. What is the bird doing? What color is it? Why is it circling overhead? etc.
Finding insects, frogs, flowers, feathers, mushrooms, animal tracks, skulls, and bird nests all help kids grow curiosity for the world around them. As a mentor, taking my kids on a journey of exploration, curiosity, and fun is what I am attempting, rather than a quest to memorize the names of every species in our forest.
6. Encourages Imagination
There’s something magical about a trickling stream, a mossy knoll, a pine forest, a mountain, or a swamp. As a child even all the way through college, I’d make up stories for myself based on my forest explorations to help me fall asleep at night. For some kids, it encourages artistic talents, for others, creative problem-solving, such as how can I get this rope onto that branch way up there. For preschool and elementary-aged kids, nature motivates imaginative play, which helps kids practice verbal and social skills, builds empathy, and helps them understand their world. Imaginative play is essential to childhood!
7. A Sense of Belonging
Connecting to a wilderness setting, backyard, or park creates a deep sense of place and belonging in the world that cannot be easily achieved elsewhere. For me, I always felt at home in the forest. I felt so at peace there, I would walk half a mile from my home, navigate through briars and poison ivy, balance on logs through a muddy swamp, and then settle down for a nap under the trees where I could, at last, sleep in peace to the voices of nature. When I woke up, the birds would be singing just a few feet away and a few curious deer would be feeding a few yards away. I’d slip off my shoes and run silently after the deer, hoping to get close enough to touch them. To me, although I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, I spent a lot of my free time in the woods and I felt like the birds, beavers, snakes, and deer were my extended family.
It IS possible for kids to feel a deep sense of connection and belonging in the natural world in modern day life close to what native people used to experience.
8. Wilderness Strengthens Relationships Between Peers, Families, and Mentors
Meeting with other kids and mentors in a wilderness setting adds another layer to the picture, providing children with a community where they feel like they belong. Groups of kids will learn more together by sharing their experiences with each other and feeding one another’s enthusiasm. This creates lifelong friendships born from adventure, laughter, fun, and discovery.
9. Boosts Self-Esteem
Nature boosts self-esteem because you can always step into a world void of human criticism. A world of plants and animals buzzing with life and joy that reminds you whatever happened that week really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That breakup, that failed test, that nasty rumor will die and be forgotten, just as plants die in winter and spring starts a new season.
Wilderness also allows kids to push their boundaries and take risks, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem because they can prove self-worth to themselves. Nature, especially wilderness survival skills, motivate goal-setting, which boosts self-esteem and confidence tremendously as each goal is achieved and a child’s sense of resiliency rises.
10. Initiates a Love of Science and Improves Academic Performance
Spending time in nature, especially with the guidance of a mentor, can help grow a love of science and questioning. Studies show that kids who have science classes outside have improved science scores.
11. Improves Eyesight
Studies show using your eyes outside reduces myopia, or nearsightedness.
12. Improves Social Skills
Kids often play more cooperatively in green spaces. It encourages peace, self-control, and self-discipline for inner-city youth, especially for girls.
13. Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder Symptoms
Outdoor play has been shown to reduce attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms in kids. Getting exercise, taking classes outside, learning to track animals as a stepping stone to learning to read, and using all of their senses might just be what ADD kids need!
14. Teaches Grit
What is grit? The ability to withstand discomfort. Grit is an important ability that will help kids get through difficult times in grade school, college, and in the professional world.
Backpacking and hiking are great examples that teach kids grit with each difficult hill. But you can start them close to home too. Sitting in the backyard during a rainstorm or at night can be a great teacher of grit to preschool or elementary-aged kids.
15. Improves Self-Discipline
Studies show that the more natural an inner-city child’s backyard is, the more self-discipline he or she will have. The results of these studies are most notable for girls.
Nature makes kids calmer and less likely to have disciplinary problems in school.