It’s Not Just Child’s Play: Nature’s Powerful Effect on Children’s Well-Being

Child in Nature

A little slimy fun can go a long way: mounting evidence shows that contact with nature deeply affects children’s emotional well-being and ability to focus. Here, a girl plays with algae in Vernonia, Oregon. Credit: Justin Larson.

These days, most discussions of nature focus on all that is going wrong: climate change, species extinction, toxic pollution, and other impending disasters. In the midst of this much-needed reflection, let us not forget our deep and intrinsic connection to the natural world—a bond that can motivate, sustain, and inform all our efforts. Nurturing children’s connection to nature is one crucial step in our multifaceted struggle to save the planet, and in turn the solace of the natural world can also become a lifeline for many children.

Small children have an inherent attraction to nature. On a recent camping trip with my daughter, Cassidy, and her friend Julius, I witnessed this attraction in a vivid way. After a morning spent playing in and around playhouse-sized tree stumps and patiently watching banana slugs travel up their arms, Cassidy and Julius discovered a five-year-old’s paradise: a shallow river beach covered with slimy, green algae. Just entering the phase of childhood where all things gross hold a deep fascination (“Yucky things are fun!” Cassidy explained), they sat themselves down in the water and delightedly spent the afternoon making algae pies and slime castles, finally stretching out in the water, faces to the sun, hair streaming out, covering themselves with the slippery goo.

Obviously, an entertaining and memorable afternoon. But we are just beginning to understand that this slimy fun also has deeper reverberations in children’s lives. In 2005, the publication of Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder helped to seed a growing movement of psychologists, educators, parents, and researchers dedicated to deepening our understanding of children’s need for nature and implementing this knowledge in tangible ways in our families, schools, and communities (see As a psychologist and a mother, I have followed with great interest the mounting evidence that contact with nature strengthens and supports children’s attentional capacity, emotional well-being, creativity, and social relationships.

This knowledge comes none too soon. The present generation of children faces unprecedented levels of nature deprivation. From city children growing up without green spaces to techno-addicted suburbanites, young people today are increasingly growing up within human-created structures. For the past several generations, we have seen a steady shift away from unstructured outdoor play in the face of increased achievement pressure, parental worries about safety, and the onslaught of electronic technology. For example, a nationwide survey of eight-year-olds through eighteen-year-olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2009 found that young people were engaged with various forms of entertainment media for a staggering seven-and-a-half hours a day on average, a figure that does not include time spent with computers related to schoolwork or talking and texting on cell phones.

Cognitive and Emotional Benefits of Time in Nature

At the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Andrea Faber Taylor and her colleagues have been uncovering nature’s role in helping children focus their attention. Their studies focused on the children who need the most help: those suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The disorder affects approximately 3-7 percent of school-age children and is frequently treated by psychotropic drugs with significant side effects. In the first of a series of studies exploring nature as a “treatment,” Taylor and her colleagues asked parents to nominate activities that seemed to improve or worsen their children’s symptoms.
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