Time Outdoors Helps Kids Respect and Connect with Nature

Spending Time Outdoor

Story at-a-glance -

  • Children who spent five to 10 hours a week outside developed a strong attachment to nature, a value that is important to both human development and well-being
  • Children who spent much time outdoors also experienced a wealth of positive emotions, including peacefulness, happiness, and a sense of belonging to the world
  • Parents of children with the strongest connections to nature also spent a lot of time outdoors during childhood, engaging in experiences that they believe helped to shape their adult lives and spirituality
  • Spending time outdoors is associated with better physical and mental health, and increased life satisfaction, in both children and adults

By Dr. Mercola

If you live in North America, the unusually long cold winter may have had you cooped up indoors for far too long. Now that the weather is finally feeling like spring and summer, you're probably thrilled to spend more time outdoors… and hopefully your kids are too.

One of the most beneficial activities for children is simply spending time in nature. This encourages unstructured playtime, which is essential for kids to build their imagination, relieve stress, and simply be kids.

It also allows kids plenty of sun exposure to build and maintain their vitamin D levels. But there are benefits on a much deeper level, too, according to recent research in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.1

Spending Time Outdoors Helps Kids Connect with Nature and Increases Happiness

The study, though small with just 10 children included, yielded incredibly meaningful results. Children who spent five to 10 hours a week outside developed a strong attachment to nature, a value that is important to both human development and well-being.

Children who spent a lot of time outdoors also experienced a wealth of positive emotions, including peacefulness, happiness, and a sense of belonging to the world. As you might suspect, parents of children with the strongest connections to nature also spent a lot of time outdoors during childhood, engaging in experiences that they believe helped to shape their adult lives and spirituality.2

Perhaps this study sheds some light on previous research that has found exposing children with ADHD to nature is an affordable, healthful way of controlling symptoms.3

Beyond this, growing research shows that humans of all ages need to maintain their connection with the natural world in order to achieve optimal health and wellness.

Did You Play Outside Until Your Mom Called You in for Dinner?

Many of you reading this probably remember spending every daylight hour outside with your friends. Likely these are among your favorite childhood memories, but times have certainly changed in that regard, and not necessarily for the better.

For many kids today, childhood is becoming increasingly overrun with technology, schedules, and time spent indoors, when the key to health and happiness lies just outside. As reported by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF):4

"In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.

This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation's kids. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled the last 20 years; the United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world; and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen precipitously.

Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out, because they're missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world."

NWF has compiled a revealing list of facts that shows just how important outdoor time is for children… and how detrimental removing this inherent connection to nature may be.5 For the record, nature's benefits don't discriminate.  

They're equally relevant to children and adults alike, with research showing people with access to nature have better health, increased levels of satisfaction, lower stress, and greater well-being.

Outdoor play increases fitness levels, fights obesity, and builds healthy bodies. Spending time outside raises levels of vitamin D, helping to protect children from heart disease, diabetes, bone problems, and more. Time outdoors improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.
Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing, and listening. Exposure to environment-based education improves students' critical thinking skills. Children's stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.
Play protects children's emotional development while loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle may lead to anxiety and depression. Nature makes people nicer, enhances social interactions, and improves value for community and close relationships.

Summer Is the Perfect Time for Outdoor Family Activities

A warm sunny day has an allure that is difficult to resist. Go with your instincts and get outdoors when it calls to you. Remember, your kids are watching your every move, and if they see you enjoying the great outdoors, they will too.

Encourage your children to engage in activities that are naturally interesting to them, such as playing on the monkey bars, rollerblading, skateboarding, playing basketball with friends, or even helping you in the garden. Organized sports are great, but so are spontaneous romps through mud puddles, climbing trees, and spotting frogs in a nearby creek.

Opportunities to grow and appreciate nature are everywhere, so try to encourage your child's natural curiosity and sense of exploration by identifying birds on the way to the bus stop, talking about the insects you see around your yard, or helping your child plant a small flower or vegetable garden.

Above all, resist the urge to overly structure your child's outdoor time, instead encouraging natural active play, time together as a family, as well as, respect and appreciation for the outdoor world.

Are You Planning a Trip to the Pool? Chemical Safety Tips for Every Parent

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new data showing that nearly 5,000 chemical-related pool injuries were treated in US emergency rooms in 2012.6 More than half of these injuries were among children and teens, most often occurring between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Swimming pool chemical injuries included respiratory problems from breathing in chemical fumes, eye injuries, and skin injuries. If you're uncertain whether the pool you're entering has recently been treated with chemicals, ask before taking a dip. If you own or operate a pool, the CDC offers the following tips:7

  • Store chemicals safely and securely to protect children and animals from accidental exposure, and keep children away from the area where chemicals are being handled
  • Avoid mixing different pool chemicals, especially chlorine products with acid
  • Do not pre-dissolve pool chemicals unless the label instructs you to do so
  • Add pool chemicals to the water. Do not add water to pool chemicals

For those of you who have ever wondered if the chlorine in a swimming pool poses a health risk, now you know that it certainly can. What you'll find even more unsettling to know, however, is that the disinfection byproducts (DBPs) created by chlorine reactions are far more dangerous.

Would You Know What Drowning Looks Like?

Aside from chemical safety, if you're planning a trip involving any form of water, please become familiar with what a drowning person actually looks like (it's not the way you see in the movies, with shouting and flailing arms). Drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the US, where about 10 people die from drowning every day. The risk is even greater among children aged one to four, who have the highest drowning rates, and it remains the second-leading cause of accidental death (second only to motor vehicle accidents) for kids one to 14.8

What's shocking, however, is that many drowning deaths among children occur when the child is being supervised and may be only a short distance from an adult. Occurring quickly and quietly, a drowning can happen right before your eyes, before you even realize what happened. Many people believe a drowning person will flail about in the water, splash, and make noise to call for help. But this image is far from reality.

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., a former lifeguard and educator, coined the term "instinctive drowning response" to describe what happens when a person is very close to drowning. When a person is drowning, nature takes over and the movements become a result of instinct. For starters, the person will not be able to call for help, as their body is working on struggling to breathe first and foremost.

They also will not be able to wave their arms to attract attention, as the instinctive response is for your arms to extend out laterally and press down against the water's surface in an attempt to keep your head above water. Children may even appear to be dog-paddling when in fact they're drowning. The other telltale sign of a drowning person is no movement from their legs; a drowning person will not kick but will instead remain upright in the water, sometimes appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder with their feet.

Five Signs That Drowning Is Imminent

If a person is shouting and waving for help, they may still be in distress and need assistance. However, the five signs that follow, reported in On Scene, the journal of US Coast Guard Search and Rescue,9 may occur when a person is only 20-60 seconds from disappearing below the surface:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid, function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When drowning people's mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people's bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Other "quiet" signs of drowning reported by Mario Vittone, a former US Coast Guard rescue swimmer, include:10

Head low in the water, mouth at water level Head tilted back with mouth open Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
Eyes closed Hair over forehead or eyes Not using legs – Vertical
Hyperventilating or gasping Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway Trying to roll over on the back
Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder Children who are suddenly quiet

9 Top Ways to Get Outdoors as a Family

Are you looking for a few fun and creative ways to spend your summer outdoors with your family? Try out these simple and inexpensive outings:

1. Go on a Scavenger Hunt – Make a list of challenges (find an orange leaf, get a neighbor's signature, snap a photo of a tulip, etc.), split your family into teams, set a time limit, and then head off (on foot or on bike) to see who can complete the most items.

2. Have a Water Day – Tossing water balloons, splashing in a kiddie pool, and running through a sprinkler in the backyard are fun ways to stay cool while enjoying nature on a hot summer day.

3. Set "Mileage" Goals for the Weekend – Decide as a family how many steps, or how many miles, you want to travel over the weekend, then have fun trying to reach the goal. You can use pedometers to measure steps taken while going on nature hikes, playing tag, and more, and can challenge the family to increase your goal each weekend.

4. Wash the Car – Washing the car uses key core muscles and can be a fun, bonding outdoor experience, especially if you take time to cool off with the hose, too.

5. Family Olympics – Get together with a group of families and compete in outdoor events like hula-hoops, 50-yard dash, relay race, basketball shoot, and an obstacle course. You can even make it an annual event!

6. Do Outdoor "Chores" and Gardening – Weeding the garden, watering plants, planting a garden, and harvesting fruits and vegetables help your kids connect with nature while teaching your kids the value of responsibility. Make outdoor chores fun by setting a time limit and even turning on some music while you work together as a family.

7. Plan Seasonal Outdoor Activities – Swimming, biking, canoeing, and hiking are great in the summer, while, come winter, sledding, ice skating, building a snowman, or skiing are fun.

8. Play Together – Tag, hide-and-go-seek, hopscotch, doing cartwheels, and building an outdoor fort are fun for kids and adults alike.

9. Try Out Family Sports – A backyard game of softball or volleyball, shooting hoops, or taking a trip to a golf course give you quality time as a family while getting you outdoors.