Children in nature

Getting children out into nature helps build "natural intelligence," reduce conflict and even increase academic performance, studies show.

Walking through my local neighborhoods brings me such joy these days.

Kids are everywhere, and they are engaged in an exceedingly rare activity: They are playing. Not structured. Slightly supervised. Maybe with a sibling, but mostly self-focused.

With the pandemic forcing us to shelter at home, structured sports, arts and academics are temporarily on hold, and this could be particularly good for children.

While scheduled activities are important for children, free play is more important. As standardized testing and competitive sports became more pervasive in our culture, recess, free play and exploration have suffered. There is a large body of research to support that this trend is not one we want to continue, and that it is actually play that is the key to physical and emotional health.

As we begin to emerge from isolation, I want to encourage parents, educators and health care providers not to return to the same exact routines. Now is the time to deliberately put nature play into our children’s lives.

A recent issue of the medical journal Contemporary Pediatrics highlights a study done in Los Angeles where two schools were similarly matched for demographics and physical space.

The control school kept its outdoor space the same, and the experimental school converted 21,000 square feet of asphalt into green space, including grass, trees, boulders and an outdoor classroom space. In the green-space school, there was a decrease in sedentary activities that was expected, but the unexpected result was a “significant decrease in physical and verbal conflicts among children.”

Guided by the open, natural space the children shifted to more unstructured play, which has fewer rules and thus fewer conflicts and improved positive interaction.

This study is just one of many that highlight the benefits of incorporating nature play into our children’s daily lives.

Other studies done in Canada show that the greening of schools leads to improved academics, increased teacher satisfaction and less disciplinary action.

Natural intelligence

At home, from toddlers on up, there also are many benefits to incorporating frequent exposure to nature.

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Getting children out into nature helps build "natural intelligence," reduce conflict and even increase academic performance, studies show.

Richard Louv, author of “The Nature Principle,” discusses the benefits of “natural intelligence” or “Vitamin N.” He cites human innate skills that have grown numb but can be awakened by spending more time outdoors, including sense of direction, echolocation (the location of objects by reflected sound) and proprioception (a sense of self-movement and body position).

In the book, Louv is careful to point out that, in addition to increasing our time in nature, we also must encourage our children to grow up incorporating their natural surroundings into their lives, including their careers.

While he certainly appreciates the need to take climate change seriously, he goes so far as to point out that if we do not stop preaching gloom and doom about the environment and start helping our kids figure out how to live congruously and healthily with the natural world, we will only stay stagnant instead of moving the next generation toward progress.

As we educate and train our future teachers, health care providers, scientists and urban designers, we should provide them with a wealth of experience in nature, so they are more likely to build lives that protect it.

Play in the mud

So, what should our first step be this summer? The answer is simple, inexpensive and ubiquitous: mud. Start with playing in the mud. Mud play has been shown to have numerous benefits to both mind and body. Mud can be science, mud can be art, but most of all it is fun. Playing in the dirt exposes us to bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae, which has been shown to boost the immune system and improve emotional health. How wonderful, after months of panicking about germs, to encourage our kids to get dirty and have fun.

Playing in the mud awakens all the senses, highlights the benefits of imperfection and emphasizes the changing nature of life.

As we begin to redesign our life after the pandemic, let us not abandon some of the good changes we have adapted. Outside time in nature is not simply good for us, it is one of the keys to moving the next generation forward.

As school district committees begin the herculean task of designing the next school year, please remember that the outdoors can and should play a critical role. And finally, to health care providers, as we think about prevention and safety in the years to come, do not forget to prescribe Vitamin N.

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Dr. Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, answers questions about children’s health. You can submit questions at