There is nothing like a breath of fresh air. Research has shown that finding a sense of connection with natural surroundings can have a positive effect on mental health, including lowering symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are also many physical benefits to spending time outdoors, including increased opportunities for exercise, soaking up much needed Vitamin D from the sun, reducing blood pressure, lowering heart rate, relieving muscle tension, and reducing levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Some research has indicated that just being exposed to sunlight can help lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
Throughout the past few years while enduring the global pandemic, many children and families experienced an increase in anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms. Being cooped up inside and separated from friends and extended family may have created a sense of isolation, which can have a detrimental effect on mental health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, spending time outdoors was a key factor in helping people cope with pandemic related stress. Nearly 45% of people surveyed by the Mental Health Foundation reported that spending time in green spaces such as parks helped them cope during times of stress or isolation. During a time of such uncertainty, nature was a consistent and safe place to spend time and get out of the house.
Remember the good old days of playing outside until it was dark, climbing trees, splashing in puddles, collecting bugs, and finding fun ways to entertain yourself until your parents called you in? Outdoor play has been shown to help improve children’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development. Encouraging outdoor play for children can also be a great way to reduce screen time, foster creativity and a sense of adventure, and establish a healthy connection to outdoor recreation that can last into adulthood. Children have a natural sense of curiosity and imagination, and it can be such a convenient way to help them develop this by exploring what is right in their own backyard or neighborhood. Outdoor play is not as structured as most indoor activities, which means the sky is the limit as far as children coming up with creative, self-directed ways to enjoy nature. This can help your child build confidence and a sense of self determination.
Another key benefit of nature being beneficial to mental health is the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness to the present moment, while calmly accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Staying grounded in the present moment can help a child become more aware of their immediate surroundings, which can help reduce the potential for anxious or depressive thoughts. When a child is surrounded by nature, their five senses are stimulated which creates a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness activities. A simple mindfulness activity could be finding a safe spot and encouraging your child to take their shoes off and feel the ground under their feet. Ask them to notice how the grass feels between their toes, the smell of the grass and dirt, or the sensation of the cool air on their skin. These are all ways to help ground them into the present moment and bring awareness to their senses.
The best way to encourage your child to spend more time in nature is to lead by example. There are so many fun activities for children, parents and families that could help develop outdoor play and also create a bonding experience for the whole family. Here are some ideas:
Nature based scavenger hunt: Make a list of outdoor items for your child to discover such as a green leaf, a twig that looks like a person, a bird feather, a flower, a rock with a special design. Then, bring the list with you and help your child check off the items as they go.
Play “I-Spy” Nature Version: This can be a good way for your child to practice their mindfulness skills through using observation.
Mindful Walk: Put electronics away and go for a walk in the neighborhood or a nearby park. As you walk, encourage your child to share what they see, hear, smell, and feel.
Watch the Clouds: Sit or lay on the ground and watch the clouds roll by. Ask your child what they see and encourage them to use their imagination to describe what animal/person/shape the clouds look like.
Family Picnic: Make a plan to eat dinner outside in the backyard or at a local park and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature as you dine.
Make a Nature Bracelet: Wrap a piece of masking tape, sticky side up, around your child’s wrist and go for a walk outside. Allow your child to decorate their bracelet with leaves, flowers, feathers, and whatever other treasures they can find.
Build a Terrarium: Grab a glass container, some plants, and moss and allow your child to observe their creation grow.
Make a Birdfeeder: You can easily make a DIY birdfeeder by stringing up berries, popcorn, fruit, or seeds onto a sturdy string and tying it around a tree.
Take a bike ride or hike: Explore a local hiking trail or bike trail in your neighborhood.