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The last two decades have seen a huge decline in children’s outdoor play. Children’s use of space has changed from being primarily outdoors to indoors now and has become increasingly adult supervised. Busy schedules, fears about safety and the lure of technology are keeping children away from nature…but at what cost?
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University in his book, “Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection”, states that direct experiences with nature is critical, yet diminishing. (Nature includes any of the varied definitions researchers use to describe outdoor areas where natural elements are abundant and diverse.) Kellet claims that nature is important to children’s development in every major way, physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Play in nature, particularly during the critical years of early childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for intellectual development.
There is plenty of research linking physical activity in children with the development of sensory-motor integration development. Neuroscientists are examining the relationship between interaction with nature and attention, as well as other aspects of cognition. Cutting edge research is showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and what’s more, it increases attention span.
Helping children to ‘pay attention’ has always been a central concern of parents and educators. ‘Attention’ is the ability to focus the mind and is a prerequisite to learning and a basic element in motivation and management. Our minds take in information from the world through our senses, mostly through touch, vision and hearing and there is always much more information than our minds can grasp at once. An effective attention system must be able to quickly identify and focus on the most important item in a complex environment. It must be able to sustain attention on its focus while monitoring related information and ignoring other stimuli and access memories that aren’t currently active when important new information arrives.
Researchers at the University of Illinois studied the effects of children after being active in nature for twenty minutes. They measured the brain activity of the children and found that those who connected with nature were better able to filter out extraneous stimuli, in other words better able to pay attention and act appropriately. Spending time in nature gave children an increased feeling of vitality, increasing their energy levels and making them feel more motivated. Their performance levels were increased, improving their ability to learn new things and making it easier to absorb and retain information. Interacting with nature reduced children’s tendency towards distraction.
When children have the freedom in nature through unstructured, open-ended creative activities, children use their brains in unique ways as they come to understand new stimuli. Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imagination and serve as the medium of attention, inventiveness and creativity. Plants, stones, dirt present limitless opportunities for play and can be expressed differently every time a child steps into nature. Children make up the rules and use their intelligence in their own individual way.
Nature is a natural attention builder. Often children who are restless and can’t sit still are significantly more successful after time spent outdoors. Children are able to create their own world without labels, pre-conceived ideas and instructions. It promotes problem solving. They learn to understand what works and what doesn’t, what lines of thinking brings success or failure, how to know when to keep trying and when to stop. Time in nature helps children to note patterns, as the natural world is full of patterns and pattern building, a crucial early maths skill. They learn about similarities and differences, another skill for learning. It affords many opportunities for sorting. Play in nature often requires persistence. Children try and try again to see if their experiment works. If a branch doesn’t reach across the stream or the bark does not cover their humpy, they keep trying until they succeed.
Outdoor play in nature offers evidence that children’s mental development is dependent on experiences in nature. It builds a child’s attention and learning systems and therefore integral for cognitive development. Countries with the highest literacy rates in the world (Iceland and Finland) have outdoor day-cares which enhance child development through provision of movement, touch, human connection and nature. Outdoor play in nature is stressed even in the coldest of weather. Learning in nature has a long tradition in these countries. Educators believe that paying attention is foundational for successful learning. If a child experiences difficulties with attention, he will struggle in school, at home, with daily skills and responsibilities and later in the workforce.
Marianne Schriever is a past school principal and a GymbaROO neuro-developmental consultant.
References: Kellert, Stephen R. (2005). Nature and Childhood Development, In Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Washington, D.C. Island Press. Education Services Australia Ltd. (2010). Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs. Young Children and Nature: April 11 2011, Blacksburg, Virginia
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