Many children today spend their idle time staring at screens and not at the sky. Kids today are tethered to technology and as a result, many children are experiencing a ‘nature deficit’.
When kids are spending too much time with technology they’re not spending enough time in nature and this has implications on their development and well-being.
In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv proposes that our children’s technology-oriented culture is making it harder for them to spend time outside, immersed in nature. As a result, they’re missing out on many of the benefits nature offers. This has implications on their health, physical, emotional and mental and well-being.
Why is nature important for young children?
Time outdoors in nature is vital for optimal brain function. If children are constantly using devices their brains simply don’t get ‘down time’. They don’t get to switch off. And their brains (and ours too) need time to switch off.
Children need white space for their minds to wander. Children need white space to help them to process the information they’re consuming. Children need white space so they have the opportunity for creative expression.
But today’s kids aren’t getting enough white space. They don’t get the opportunity for their minds to wander because they’re often constantly processing information and input from screens and other gadgets.
Constant processing of information from digital devices is taking a toll on many of our children. We need to teach children how to unplug from technology and plug back into real life. And nature is the ideal way for them to plug back into ‘real’ life.
Benefits of ‘green-time’
- Improved attention– the attention restoration theory* suggests that time in nature restores children’s ability to direct attention and improve information processing. There’s evidence that shows that children have improved attention after spending time in nature.
- Depth of vision– there are anecdotal reports of increasing rates of myopia (nearsightedness) in young children, because of excessive time with digital devices. Nature provides the ideal conditions for children’s vision to develop, especially their depth of vision.
- Mind wandering time– Professor Daniel Levitin** explains that the brain has an attentional mode called the “mind wandering mode” This mode allows thoughts to move seamlessly from one to another, and then to unrelated thoughts, without feeling like you need to direct or control the thoughts. This is brain state acts like a neural reset button, as it allows us to problem solve, come up with creative ideas and approach other tasks with a fresh perspective.
Time in nature switches off the prefrontal cortex of the brain where executive function takes place (this is where children’s higher order thinking takes place like impulse control and working memory). When the prefrontal cortex switches off it allows our subconscious to work and creativity and new ideas to flourish.
Have you ever noticed that you often have your best ideas in the shower or when listening to music or exercising? This is because your brain has had some white space for mind-wandering.
- Dopamine release- Time in nature also helps the brain to release dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. So encourage your child to go for a walk, run or even jump on the trampoline. It’s not only fun, but it’s also a great incubation period for thinking and creativity.
- Lowers stress- Being in nature, or even looking at images of nature has been shown to reduce stress levels (which can in turn reduce cortisol levels). The theories vary as to why and how nature reduces stress, but possible suggestions include that time in nature is often associated with physical activity and sometimes social interaction which can both reduce the stress hormone, cortisol.
- Increased creativity and cognitive function– Research shows that children are more creative after they’ve been exposed to nature. Furthermore, this recent research has also highlighted that daily exposure to nature increases children’s ability to focus and concentrate and, therefore, enhances their cognitive abilities (including problem-solving and other higher-order thinking skills).
- Increased physical activity– Time in nature is usually associated with physical activity so there are obvious physical benefits too, such as lowering the likelihood of obesity (and reducing stress levels, as outlined above).
- Better sleep habits– Time in nature, especially in the morning, exposes children to natural light. This exposure helps to regulate their circadian rhythms (so their body produces sufficient melatonin to fall asleep quickly). Time in nature helps to set children’s body clocks required for sleep, as their bodies learn to produce the right amounts of melatonin around sleep time so that they can fall asleep quickly and easily at night (and we all want that). Time in nature provides sleep-inducing amounts of natural light.
What parents can do to ensure their child gets ‘green-time’
- Balance children’s screen-time with their ‘green time’– Children often want a daily dose of digital, but they also need a daily dose of nature too. Establish and enforce limits on your child’s screen-time. Some children and some adults too can sacrifice some screen-time to ensure that they get enough green-time too.
- Encourage nature-based and unstructured play– children need at least 30 minutes of time in nature every day.
- Model healthy screen habits– children are much more inclined to have healthy screen-time habits if we do, as parents. So model healthy habits and show your child that you like spending time in nature.
- Schedule ‘green-time’– each week as a family activity (my boys have recently started going on a Gruffalo hunt in the local beach track and they love it).
In the comments below, I’d love to know how your family balances screen-time with ‘green-time’ What strategies have you found work well?
* Felsten, G. (2009). Where to take a study break on the college campus: An attention restoration theory perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology,29(1), 160-167.
Herzog, T. R., Black, A. M., Fountaine, K. A., & Knotts, D. J. (1997). Reflection and attentional recovery as distinctive benefits of restorative environments. Journal of environmental psychology, 17(2), 165-170.
** Levitin, D. J. (2014) The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload: Penguin.
I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.