Nature's Prescription for Happy Kids: How Outdoor Play Sparks Joy and Development

Nature's Prescription for Happy Kids: How Outdoor Play Sparks Joy and Development

You may have recently heard that doctors in Scotland are recommending time in nature. This is a new and beautifully cost-effective example of social prescribing. For some it seems madly obvious but statistics show that children and adults are spending less time in nature than ever before. Is the coinciding rise in depression and anxiety really a coincidence? Author Jay Griffiths asks why modern children feel so happy.

Her main answer lies in the title of her new book, Kith. Now used only in the phrase "kith and kin", the word has come to mean something like "extended family" or "circle of friends". But it originally referred to a person's "home territory", the country or region where they lived. For Griffiths, our children have been cooped up indoors, imprisoned in front of their screens (whether television or computer), and they have lost all contact with their kith – with the woods and the wilds, the mountains and moors, the rivers and streams. That, she argues, is the heart of the problem. Mary Beard, The Guardian

While true wilderness in the UK is only accessed in tiny numbers, children undoubtedly thrive in nature and they know exactly what to do. That's why den building is a childhood past-time found all over the globe.

So why the nature deficit? Back in 2006 when 'The Last Child In The Woods' was published by journalist Richard Louv, the forest school movement was gaining traction. Forest school has been a saving grace for many children who can't help but be disruptive in a classroom setting. Running around, jumping, hitting things, fidgeting, shouting - these things are seen as problem behaviours inside. But when a child does these things outside it's seen differently - it's healthy childish exuberant play. That explains why children diagnosed with ADD exhibit greatly reduced symptoms when in nature from as young as 5 years-old.

So why is nature play so important?

Developing intelligence and skills for life

Free play allows children to socialise, self-organise and creatively problem-solve in a unique way. The challenges presented by a climbable tree or balancing log for example, require children to find courage and resilience. They also have to assess risk, make decisions and make mistakes in a way that is deeply experiential and meaningful.

Given that we learn things significantly more quickly through play means nature is the ultimate learning ground. Free unstructured nature play benefits the mind, body and soul. You'll see that deep contentment in the childs' eyes - a sparkle.

That sparkle is sometimes because the child has had a 'peak experience' - one of those joy bursts that involves a heightened sense of awe and wonder. Peak experiences are actually part of 'self-actualisation' which sits at the top of Maslow's famous 'hierarchy of needs'. Nature in her wisdom generously offers us these moments where we can fulfil our potential.

Finding health without technology

The little-read UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child reminds us that governments have a responsibility to provide education in "health and well-being so that children can stay healthy". Staying healthy means time in nature and with increased technology use this is getting harder. Research shows that more than 2 hours screen time a day results in worse memory, language use and attention span.

Sadly, many parents fear sending their children off to the park even though research shows children who live near parks have a lower BMI at age 18 than those who live further away. It could even be easy to imagine that access to the internet is less dangerous that the local playground. Concerns regarding traffic and stranger danger are rife but not always substantiated by the evidence. Children also fear bullying and traditional 'mucking about' is easily labelled anti-social.

With anxiety, depression and addiction now closely connected to screen time, time outdoors really is the detox every child needs on a daily basis. And it's absolutely critical that children spend significant chunks of time away from their devices. Interrupting the addiction and reconnecting the child to the wonders of the outdoors will serve them well. I've heard the antidote to technology overuse referred to as 'tethering'. Take your child where there is no phone coverage and allow them to tether themselves to real life, to nature. Finding our ground supports us to manage everything else in life with a clearer mind.

Rewilding yourself and your family

When relationships feel strained or bonds feel weakened, take the children out into nature for all long as possible and watch the magical effect of mother nature rub off on all of you. Watch how the squabbling falls away and moods lift. Conversations falls into a natural rhythm, personal space is given and taken, stress diminishes.

Next time the children are literally going up the walls, take the walls away and head outside. Don't pander to the groans of resistance - children always love it once they are get out!

For ideas on how to engage your children in nature check out the fabulous 'Project Wild Thing' run by The Wild Network. The project has a mission to get 1 million children away from screens and outdoors.

I'll let author Jay Griffiths have the final word...

Every generation of children instinctively nests themselves in nature, no matter how tiny a scrap of it they can grasp. In a tale of one city child, the poet Audre Lord remembers picking tufts of grass which crept up through the paving stones in New York City giving them as bouquets to her mother. It is a tale of two necessities. The grass must grow, no matter the concrete suppressing it. The child must find her way to the green, no matter the edifice which would crush it. Jay Griffiths. A County Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World