“Time in nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children's health." - Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods
Imagine a treatment that would improve your mood, make you smarter, keep you healthier and improve your relationships. How much would you invest in that therapy? It turns out there is such a thing, and best of all, it’s free. It’s called “nature.”
How many of you were told as youngsters by a parent or grandparent, “Just go out and play”? And then you did just that. You’d go out for hours after school, just exploring the backyard, or the woods, or the playground, with your friends until it was dinnertime. I remember many spring and summer afternoons spent digging for crayfish and building rock dams in a creek down the street from my house. My friends and I frequently lost track of time, remembering to go home for dinner only when the sun finally set.
I am afraid we have lost touch with the value of free time and play, especially for our children. We have overscheduled children frantically trying to keep up with their overscheduled parents in our 21st century world where relaxation time must be planned as well. Play-dates have replaced free play, often booked weeks in advance as parents consult their smartphones to ensure kids can hang out together.
I know, I know, it’s a different world now. The ability to pay “partial continuous attention” is a highly valued skill these days. Parents feel the pressure to prepare their children for the “real world” they’ll face. Globalization forces us to compare our educational systems not only to those of neighboring towns but also to those of other countries halfway across the world. I am not so naive as to believe we can turn back the clock and remove all stress from life. Indeed, as researcher Hans Selye noted, stress is not necessarily a bad thing; it is simply “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand.” So we must focus on teaching our children not how to avoid demands per se but how to develop better coping mechanisms. One of the best ways, it seems, is to promote free, unstructured play – especially in natural, outdoor settings.
More and more research is pointing out the costs of hectic childhoods and lack of time spent in outdoor settings. Richard Louv, author of “The Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle,” aptly termed this phenomenon, “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” A mounting number of research studies highlight the positive impact of free outdoor play on children’s emotional and physical health. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ seminal report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” notes, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Do we need randomized controlled trials to prove that spending time in free play in nature is good for us and for our children? We probably shouldn’t, but with more schools eliminating recess to make time for academic time – in elementary schools – we need all the help we can get.
What can we do? At the Whole Child Center, inspired by the National Environmental Education Foundation and the Children & Nature Network, we write “nature prescriptions” for our families, connecting them with community parks and nature centers like the Tenafly Nature Center. We are actively working with educators to bring nature into classrooms and classrooms out to nature, supporting the vision of groups like the Center for Ecoliteracy. For a list of resources, please see our “Nature Rx” web page.
(This article was adapted from a post originally published for Kiwi Magazine Online.)
Lawrence Rosen, MD is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of Treatment Alternatives for Children, an evidence-based guide for parents interested in natural solutions for common childhood ailments. He is the founder of one of the country’s first “green” pediatric practices, The Whole Child Center, in Oradell, NJ, and serves as Medical Advisor to the Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center at HackensackUMC. Dr. Rosen is a founding member and Past Chair of the AAP Section on Integrative Medicine and is appointed as Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UMDNJ. A graduate of New York Medical College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he completed his residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Dr. Rosen has been featured on Good Morning America, CNN, and Imus in the Morning, and he is a frequently cited expert on children’s and environmental health matters. He is a contributing editor and pediatric columnist for Kiwi Magazine, as well as a contributing author/editor for several books, including Integrative Pediatrics, Green Baby, and Pediatric Clinics of North America: Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Rosen serves on many integrative health advisory boards, including the Holistic Moms Network, Teleosis Institute, IntegrativePractitioner.com and Integrative Healthcare Symposium, Integrative Touch for Kids, PedCAM, Kula for Karma, and MarbleJam Kids.