Friday, December 28, 2012

Kids, Nature and Mental Health

We’re steadily becoming a society with attention problems, and the issue is especially prevalent in kids.  Here are a few facts to chew on:

In other words, attention disorders affect a large and growing number of children, and this problem costs us a lot of money and makes life harder for the kids we love.  And attention disorders aren’t the only mental health issues affecting our children.  The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that as many as 1 in 10 American children and adolescents a year have “significant functional impairment” as a result of a mental health disorder.  

I realize there is no simple solution to this large and complex problem—but a growing body of scientific research suggests that helping our children spend less time using electronic media and more time outside connecting with nature could be part of a solution.  Here are just a few examples:
  • According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, each hour of television watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10% the likelihood they will develop concentration problems and other ADHD symptoms by age 7.
  • Numerous studies demonstrate that experiences in nature can enhance cognitive functioning, help combat the symptoms of ADHD, reduce depression, decrease anxiety, relieve stress, increase self-esteem, promote positive behavior changes, and provide several other health benefits.
  • Brain structures respond differently to stress in people raised or living in rural environments than they do in people raised or living in city environments.  Living and growing up in an urban environment affects social stress processing in the brain and can be an environmental risk factor for mental illness. 

Unfortunately, current trends are taking us in the wrong direction.  Kids today spend more time than ever interacting with electronic media and almost no time interacting with nature.  A 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 1/3 of children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years live in households where television is on most or all of the time.  Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend approximately 6.5 hours plugged in electronically, and about 1/4 of the time they use more than one form of electronic media simultaneously.  Meanwhile, the amount of discretionary time children have in a typical week has declined approximately 9 hours over a 25-year period, and children are spending far less time in nature. 

And it’s not their fault.  Today’s young people have fewer opportunities for active, unstructured, outdoor play.  In 1900 40% of the US population lived on farms, but that number dwindled to less than 2% by 1990.  Now, most children live in urban and suburban communities with limited access to open spaces.  Today, more than 57 million Americans live in homes ruled by homeowners associations, which often have rules prohibiting kids from playing outside the way their parents and grandparents did—making forts, climbing trees, damming trickles of water.  City ordinances and park rules also frequently restrict opportunities for unrestricted outdoor play.  For example, there are signs in several of the parks in my city that state tree climbing is a violation.

As our population grows, open spaces are shrinking rapidly.  This often results in overuse of the remaining undeveloped lands, and new rules are then established to protect the bits of nature that are left—bits of nature that are now to be seen, not touched.  In many urban and suburban areas, there is now little room or opportunity for free, unorganized, creative outdoor play.  And that’s sad.

When I was a kid, nature was my refuge.  Not only did the mountain forests near my home provide hours of adventure, spark my imagination, and introduce me to many of life’s great mysteries—they also provided a place where I could process hard emotions, connect to forces greater than myself, and find true peace and meaning.  Kids need moments of space, freedom and discovery.  They need the fodder for all their senses that trees, streams, and other unmanicured patches of earth provide.  These places impart peaceful and inspirational moments that stay with our children forever—giving them the gifts of connectedness, inspiration and calm feelings that can steady them against the hard knocks of life.

Researchers describe two types of attention: directed attention and involuntary attention.  Directed attention is hard work—think final exams, doing your taxes, completing a crucial project for your boss.  Too much directed attention fatigues us, leaving us irritated, distractible and more impulsive.  On the other hand, involuntary attention grips us when we’re fascinated by something.  It’s automatic and restorative.  It gives us a break from the rigors of directed attention, and it often occurs when we’re in nature. 

Think of our children.  On an average day, how much time do we put them in situations that require directed attention?  School, homework, music lessons, even sports practices.  In comparison, how much time and freedom do we give them for involuntary attention (which does not including numbing their brains in front of the television or a game station)?  I’m not saying that directed attention is bad for our kids.  They need to develop the ability to concentrate on difficult subjects in order to succeed in life.  However, research suggests that our children also need more unstructured time outdoors where they can become fascinated by the world they live in.      

In the words of Stephen Kellert, Ph.D., “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”  We should treat time for unstructured, outdoor play as an essential ingredient for our children’s lifelong well-being.

As Richard Louv explains in his fantastic book Last Child in the Woods, “If it’s true that nature therapy reduces the symptoms of ADHD, then the converse may also be true: ADHD may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature.  By this line of thinking, many children may benefit from medications, but the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment.  Viewed from this angle, the society that has disengaged the child from nature is most certainly disordered, if well-meaning.” 

We can help, and we can have fun and enhance our own mental health doing it.  So grab the kids you love and take them outside.  Kick off your shoes and make time to watch a sunset.  Let your children run and climb and swim.  Let them feel the freedom, mystery, and inspiration of running wild on this beautiful planet.  Help them get mud on their feet!

To find a place for active, unstructured, outdoor play near your home, check out this cool tool from Discover the Forest.