Many of us keep a vivid memory of early childhood experiences with nature, which the French poet Charles Baudelaire celebrated on many of his works by comparing nature to a sacred temple. So, how can nature be beneficial to children? And should it be a fundamental component in the development of our children?

Spending more time close to nature has been shown to prevent mental illness later on in life, facilitate and reinforce the desire to learn in children, leads to better memory and more developed brain structure.

Let’s dive into each of these benefits to understand their importance for children better.

How Connecting With Nature Elevates Mental Health

Nature prevents mental illness later on in life

Statistics consistently show a higher proportion of psychological disorders among the urban population. At the top of the list are depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.

However, a number of very recent research findings show that nature promotes good mental and cerebral development from an early age.

At a time when more than half of the planet lives in urban areas, these results sound like a wake-up call.

“The risk of developing a mental illness in adolescence or adulthood decreases with the amount of time we spent surrounded by greenery between birth and age ten,” says Kristine Engemann.

Kristine is a Danish researcher in the Department of Biosciences at Aarhus University, and has conducted a study on more than 900,000 people.

After collecting data on their current and past mental health, as well as their first residential locations, she assessed the percentage of green space in their neighborhood during their first ten years of life using satellite data analysis.

The results show that the risk of contracting a mental illness is 55% higher among those who have been least exposed to a natural environment in this period of childhood, compared to those who have been most exposed.

Nature reinforces the desire to learn in children

Education specialists confirm (especially when children are involved in an active way) that outdoor activities and contact with nature bring a sense of well-being, stimulate creativity, and strengthen the desire to learn.

A team from the University of Thessaly, Greece, initiated an experimental project in a nursery school where 4-year-old school children were invited to transform the schoolyard into a natural space of their own design.

shows how, at an early age, children are able to transform their environment in the right direction.

Supported by their teachers, the school children worked together to plant flowers, make a nest for birds, and supply water to a fish pond.

The researchers observed a strong and spontaneous desire to interact with nature in children. Over the course of the experiment, they also increased their environmental awareness.

Such educational initiatives also aim, by raising awareness among children, to “popularize” contact with nature.

Because, in urban areas, it is still children from the most underprivileged backgrounds who see their relationship with the natural world restricted.

How Nature Benefits Children’s Brain Development

Better working memory

In a second study, the researchers found a correlation between the cognitive skills of schoolchildren and the geographical proximity of their homes to green spaces. Those who lived closest to a natural environment had a better working memory.

Working memory plays a central role in learning: it is associated with the acquisition of complex cognitive skills, such as language comprehension, reading, writing, arithmetic, and reasoning.

More developed brain structure

In February 2018, researchers continued this work by using MRI scans of 253 of these young participants. The images reveal remarkable differences.

Children who have grown up surrounded by green spaces have a higher volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and left premotor area. They also show more white matter in the cerebellum, right prefrontal area, and left premotor region.

According to the researchers, these particularities explain the schoolchildren’s high scores on tests evaluating working memory and attention.

For epidemiologist Payam Dadvand, lead author of the study, Being exposed to green spaces early in life can lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain.

In addition to these changes, whose exact mechanisms still need to be clarified, the Catalan researcher highlights other positive consequences of a living environment that is in closer contact with nature: breathing healthier air, living in a quieter environment, spending time in a space that encourages play and physical activity. All these factors generate positive emotions, improve psychological state and thus promote cognitive development.

Nature helps to learn

In 2017, at the University of Nebraska, psychologist Julia Torquati devised an original experiment to explore the benefits of nature for children further.

Using electroencephalography, she measured the brain activity of a group of 11-year-old children, while they sat and went through a series of cognitive exercises.

A first session was held in the laboratory, the second in open air space with a lot of greenery.

The main finding: the exercises carried out outside the school required fewer brain resources overall, and therefore less cognitive effort, from the young participants.

Enhanced visual-spatial memory

Also, the results were significantly better for tasks using visual-spatial memory, a component of working memory involved in processing information about our physical environment and spatial orientation.

In 2018, a large British study confirmed these results. Eirini Flouri, a professor at the Institute of Education at University College London, assessed the visual-spatial skills of 4,700 eleven-year-old children in relation to the proportion of vegetation in their living environment. And the children most exposed to greenery had the highest scores.

visual-spatial memory is not only necessary for us to move or find an object, but it also acts as an inhibitor of secondary information that distracts our attention when we focus on a task. It is therefore a valuable skill to maintain concentration in the classroom. In this way, it promotes learning overall.

How Can Nature Deficit Disorder Affect Your Child

What is Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)?

This term refers to the disconnection that our societies experience with regard to nature, and the problems that result from it.

This disconnection from nature begins at an increasingly early age. Some even consider it a public health problem in the United States. As an example, here are some alarming figures:

  • American children spend between 40 and 65 hours a week in front of screens

  • Less than 1 in 5 children walk to school

  • Childhood obesity increased from 4% in 1960 to 20% in the 2000s

  • Only 6% of children aged 9 to 13 play outside per week

So, how can NDD affect your kids?

NDD is linked to depression and obesity in children

Depressions and other related diseases are expected to become the most common diseases by 2020. A large number of studies show how nature helps to help with depression, and how children’s physical and socio-emotional development is stimulated by direct contact with nature.

Spending less time in contact with nature can also lead to declining self-confidence, lack of ecological awareness, and less respect for nature and animals.

NDD prevents stress control circuits from developing well in children

In 2011, Florian Lederbogen and his colleagues at the Faculty of Medicine in Mannheim, Germany, observed the brain mechanisms involved through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Normally, when we are stressed, the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (an area of the brain located on the inner surface of the hemispheres) regulates the activity of the amygdala, a deep brain structure involved in negative emotions.

But in people who have grown up in urban areas, these two areas of the brain are less connected. In other words, the stress control circuit in the brain is less effective.

“It is obvious that we have been shaped by evolution to live in an environment other than the one that industrialization offers us,” says David Meary, of the Laboratory of Psychology and Neurocognition at Grenoble-Alpes University.

The human brain is an incredible machine for adaptation, but the world around us is evolving much faster than our cognition.

Does this mean that contact with nature makes us mentally more efficient?

This is suggested by a series of studies conducted by Jordi Sunyer’s team at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain, on a sample of2,900 schoolchildren aged 7 to 10.

The findings of a first survey, published at the end of 2014, show that children living near green spaces and those spending the most hours in nature each year have fewer concentration problems and are less likely to develop attention deficit disorder.

This link remained true even when taking into account variations in socio-economic levels.

How Much Time Should a Child Spend Outdoors

According to studies on the subject, it would be ideal to spend around 90 minutes a day in contact with nature.

Indeed, an American study indicates that spending 20 to 30 minutes in the wild every day lowers the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. So spending time in the wild would reduce anxiety. This is now scientifically established.

How To Protect Your Child From Nature Deficit Disorder

At present, the syndrome of NDD is not yet recognized in medical manuals. Fortunately, awareness is gradually building in our Western societies.

  • Sedentary life
  • Time spent in front of screens
  • Urbanization
  • Fear of nature…

All cause the development of this syndrome along with multiple other factors, and in light of all the proof pointing towards the harm NDD do to our children,more scientists are beginning to question this subject seriously. But how can you start now to protect your kids from NDD?

Start From School

The daily setting of school appears as a favored space to strengthen the links between children and nature.

In October 2018, a team from the Centre of functional and evolutionary ecology in France launched the Sirène project, to better understand the process of building these links.

This project, the first of its kind in France, involves six elementary schools located in industrialized areas of the coast. It includes interviews with students and teachers, questionnaires, and outdoor activities.

In the long run, a virtuous circle may well begin. “Immersion experiences awaken a sense of belonging to the natural world, alongside other species. This is likely to generate positive emotions.” says Alix Cosquer, an environmental psychology researcher and founder of the project.

Studies have shown that the more you feel connected to nature, the more benefits are generated by the activities you engage in with it.

Enhancing children’s development through contact with nature would thus be the surest way to build a generation willing to take care of it.

10 Tips To Bring Your Child Closer To Nature

“Let’s save our children from nature deficit disorder,” wrote the American author Richard Louv in his landmark book Last Child in the Woods. Both an investigation and a practical guide, this book offers many tips and activities to develop children’s daily relationship with nature. Here are some selected tips:

  1. Bring flora and fauna into the house: invite your children to plant and water flowers, or even take care of a hamster or goldfish; this will encourage them to be aware of seasonality and the natural life cycle.

  2. Teach them to watch, smell, listen, and taste nature: show them a squirrel climbing a tree, ask them to spot a groundhog’s whistle, let them smell lavender or pick wild strawberries.

  3. Encourage them to spend more time close to nature: take them reading or playing in a park.

  4. Enrich and improve their knowledge: offer them a guide to the fauna and flora so that they can identify the species they encounter, encourage them to keep a diary of their excursions or take photos, teach them to recognize the constellations in the sky.

  5. Make nature a playground for adventures: offer them a walk under the full moon, a treasure hunt, or simply to lift a stone and discover what’s underneath.

  6. Encourage them to collect stones and shells and suggest that they “adopt” a tree, which they can visit regularly.

  7. Set up a “nature day” to carry out some outdoor activities and stick to them, even in bad weather.

  8. Tell them about your most amazing experiences and your most beautiful memories in nature.

  9. Cultivate their commitment: suggest that they offer their services to help clean up a public green space or a beach.

  10. Don’t forget the safety rules: teach them to swim, find their way in the forest, take water and a first aid kit, because nature also has its dangers.

In Summary

In contact with nature, children’s brains grow more efficiently. As a result, they have fewer concentration problems, better memory and emotional regulation capacities. And fewer mental disorders later on in life.

It is then necessary to develop their relationship with nature, in the family but also through school.

Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Author

Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

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Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

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