It’s an American summertime tradition, getting outside together as a family. It’s also an ideal time for dads to introduce their young kids to the wonders and benefits of nature.
While my children are on their summer break from school, I’ve taken them out for some trout fishing at the lake a few minutes from our home. As we sit there together, several minutes can pass while we wait for fish to bite. In this in-between time, we benefit from the natural surroundings of towering evergreen fir and cedar trees reflecting off the water, the sounds of birds calling as they glide across the blue sky overhead, and the fresh air filling our lungs.
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Mothers can do this too, of course. But there’s more than just aesthetic appreciation taking place while our senses take in the beauty of God’s creation. Research has also identified a number of benefits to kids’ character development and well-being that come from spending time in nature.
The greatest benefits from time spent outdoors are for kids who get frequent exposure to natural settings — not only during summer vacation. Too many children don’t spend enough time beyond the boundaries of their human-made environments.
The National Kids Survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service on children ages six to 19 years old concluded that only one in three kids regularly spends time doing nature-based activities, such as bird watching and wildlife viewing. Participation in nature-based activities was highest among kids age six to nine — and, not surprisingly in some ways, it trended downward as kids got older.
Think of the time and effort devoted to getting your child into natural surroundings as an investment in positive character development and well-being.
Parents play a key role in teaching kids to value time spent in nature. With this in mind, my wife and I moved our family out of the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, a few years ago. We settled in rural country just beyond Portland’s metro area. Here, my kids are immersed daily in a green space of forest and pastureland where we care for our small herd of Boer goats, some beehives, and a garden of vegetables, berries and fruit trees.
But giving a child access to the benefits of nature doesn’t require moving away from the city or suburbs. Dads and moms can plan family outings, not only in summertime but throughout the year, to natural settings just minutes from where they live.
Most cities and suburban communities in the United States have green spaces within their borders in the form of parks, arboretums, and public gardens. Parents and kids can sit on a bench, play, walk, bike, or explore. Also, oceans, lakes, streams, and hiking trails are often close enough for a weekend getaway.
Think of the time and effort devoted to getting your child into natural surroundings as an investment in positive character development and their well-being. Here are a few of the greatest returns on that investment that researchers have identified.
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1.) Increased autonomy and generosity
Psychologists define autonomy as the freedom of self-expression that aligns with personal values. Exposure to natural settings tends to decrease the restraining power of fear, social pressure, and expectations on self-expression that limit autonomy. Basically, kids can be themselves.
Exposure to natural settings also tends to increase acts of generosity — in contrast to exposure to human-made environments, which increases acts of selfishness.
These findings by researchers from the University of Rochester were documented in their article, “Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity,” published in Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin.
2.) Increased problem-solving skills
Dr. Stephen Kellert of Yale University firmly believes in the influence of natural settings to inspire creative play in kids. It develops their ability to innovate and develop solutions to problems. Kellert has documented this and other findings on his study of benefits of nature on children in his book “Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection.”
3.) Improved social skills
Children who spend time in nature are happier and demonstrate greater ability to get along with others, researchers Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker have found. Their research emphasizes the importance of getting children outdoors while they’re preschool age, and encouraging play that involves the entire body. Burdette and Whitaker’s research is addressed in their article, “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect,” in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
4.) Lowered stress levels
When highly stressed kids are surrounded by green spaces and natural vistas, their stress levels are reduced, according to psychologists Nancy Wells and Gary Evans. They also conclude that “more is better,” meaning the greater the relative abundance of green space in a child’s surroundings, the more benefits a child receives. The research findings of Wells and Evans were published in the journal Environment and Behavior in their article, “Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children.”
Jon Beaty, a life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon, and is the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”