Important New Research Links Nature and Children's Health

About the Author

Susan Sachs Lipman (Suz) has more than 25 years experience as a writer, editor, social media manager, community builder, and advocate for getting children into nature. She is the author of Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which was named a TIME magazine Top 10 Trend of 2012. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog and others. Suz serves as the Director of Social Media Promotion and Partnerships for the Children & Nature Network.

An important new paper has just been released that further links children’s time in nature to their overall health. The paper, Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health, was written by Leyla E. McCurdy, MPhil, Kate E. Winterbottom, MPH, Suril S. Mehta, MPH, and James R. Roberts, MD, MPH, and published in the journal, Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care (May, 2010, Volume 40, Issue 5).

As Associate Editor Ruth A. Etzel, MD PhD, writes in her forward, Within just one generation, the definition of ‘play’ has changed dramatically among children in industrialized countries. Before the 1980s, most children were encouraged to play outside, and much of that play was unsupervised. In January, 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that children ages 8- 18 spend an average of more than 7.5 hours per day using some sort of electronic screen.

These same children, the new paper cites, may be the first generation at risk for having shorter lifespans than their parents. The paper notes Richard Louv’s work in coining the term nature-deficit disorder to describe children’s lack of outdoor activity, and its replacement by electronic media and demanding schedules. And, indeed, an increase in sedentary indoor lifestyles has contributed to a corresponding increase in chronic conditions in childhood, such as childhood obesity and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease; asthma; sleep apnea; vitamin D deficiency; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and depression.

At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that outdoor activity in natural environments may directly benefit children’s health. These benefits include: Building and maintaining healthy bones and muscles, reducing the risk of obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, reducing feelings of depression and anxiety, and promoting psychological well-being.

The paper went on to say that green space, which refers to areas of dense, healthy vegetation, becomes increasingly important as an outlet for physical activity and a means to sustain a healthy weight.

A link was also made between exposure to a natural environment and psychological health. Researchers have offered multiple reasons why nature may benefit children with attention disorders.

Outdoor activity in nature may also benefit children’s health by improving asthma, myopia, chronic pain issues, and childhood development.

The writers concluded, Physical activity is shown to improve children’s health, and a growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to natural environments can improve attention and decrease stress in children. Advising outdoor play in nature is a practical method for pediatric health care providers to address chronic conditions such as childhood obesity, as well as mental health; and one that is cost-effective and easily sustainable.

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