01 Apr The Health Benefits of a Nature Rich Childhood

Notice anything strange?

Notice anything strange?

I have always known that outdoor play is in important part of growing up, but I was startled yesterday to read about the epidemic of poor eyesight that is sweeping across urban areas word wide. An epidemic that is directly connected to a lack of outdoor play. Published in the science journal Nature a team of researchers recorded the growth in shortsightedness, otherwise known as myopia, in children. Focusing on East Asia they recorded an unprecedented rise in myopia to where almost every child born today is affected. Sixty years ago, 10–20% of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, up to 90% of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5% of 19-year-old men are short-sighted. That means the photo above, where every child has glasses has become a near universal phenomenon.

In Europe and the United States, two regions with less dense urban areas and more green spaces it is less severe with only 50% of children suffering from poor eyesight. But that is still a huge number, and twice what our parent’s generation experienced. Not only can myopia lead to more severe vision problems later in life and presents a lifelong inconvenience for our kids it also is expensive. We struggle as a society to make sure that every child in our community has enough to eat, receives basic medical care and enjoys even a mediocre education. We struggle with these things because they cost a lot of money and because we prioritize a low tax burden over the health and welfare of our children. The cost of managing a child’s poor eyesight is just one more financial challenge for an already stressed system.

The solution, however, is refreshingly simple: more outdoor play for children.

Singapore poster

A public health poster from Singapore

In the words of one of the researchers: “We’re really trying to give this message now that children need to spend more time outside,” says Kathryn Rose, head of orthopedics at the University of Technology, Sydney. One example of this public health message is the poster from Singapore to the right which tells children what parents have known in their guts for years: put down the video games and get outside. Healthy growing bodies are outdoor bodies. Think of it like this: like all muscles in a child’s body the eye needs to be exercised in order to grow properly. Outdoor environments combine many facets of vision. You look at a bird flying in the distance and identify the shape. You dig into a stump and look at bugs real close and you judge speed and distance catching a ball or tossing a pine cone. In one session of outdoor play you will use all the facets of your vision to strengthen and train your eyes. The result is healthier eye sight and healthier children.

This discussion comes on a wave of research demonstrating the necessity of outdoor play for healthy child development. We know that Seattle has the highest rate of multiple sclerosis in the world (and the most MS billboards) and that it is directly connected to a lack of vitamin D from too little time outdoors. Many of us have struggled with seasonal effective disorder (some turning it into excellent artistic expression: thank you Alice in Chains) from too little sunlight in the darker months and too little reserves of vitamin D from not going outside in the lighter ones. Child obesity is on the rise and with it diabetes and in classrooms across America children can’t sit still because they literally don’t have the core strength to do so. We know the problems that result from not enough outdoor play and we also know the scope of the cause:

Children spend an average of 7.5 hours each day or about 53 hours a week in front of a screen (more than a full time job!) but less than 4 minutes a day in outdoor play (2010 Kaiser Family Foundation).

“At no time in human history have children spent less time outdoors. Attention deficit disorders, obesity and a variety of other physical and emotional ailments can be attributed to a decline in exposure to the out of doors and the natural environment.” – Craig Whipple, Director of Vermont State Parks

One solution I learned about recently is Hike-It-Baby a parenting group where new families meet up at local trails and hike together with their babies on their backs. Started a few years ago in Portland, OR (I can already imagine the Portlandia episode for this one) chapters have spread to 80 cities nation wide including here in Seattle and Tacoma. Each hike is a big dose of vitamin nature for your newborn.

Tiny Trees Preschool presents another hopeful solution – daily, intimate exploration of the natural world by children from diverse backgrounds during their most formative years. When a child enters Tiny Trees at the age of 3 they will spend every week-day outdoors, experiencing a vibrant, nature rich childhood. That means by the time a child graduates from Tiny Trees at the age of 5 they will have spent the majority of their waking lives outdoors. Tiny Trees Preschool, with the help of parents, is leading the nature-child reunion and helping kids develop not only the academic and social skills needed to thrive but helping them develop into healthy and happy adults – two eyes at a time.

By Andrew A. Jay, CEO Tiny Trees Preschool, andrew@tinytrees.org

P.S. > This blog post originally started as a compilation of all of the health benefits of a nature rich childhood but I had so much to say about the myopia boom that not all of the research I compiled made it in so below are the results from our review of the literature:

Supports creativity, problem solving and cooperation: Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also played more cooperatively (Bell and Dyment, 2006). Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development (Kellert, 2005).

Improves academic performance: Studies in the US show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education support significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27% (American Institutes for Research, 2005).

Improves eyesight: 90% of children in China and 95% in Korea currently suffer from poor eyesight called myopia or near-sightedness (Nature, 2015) up from 10% in 1960. More time spent outdoors is related to reduced rates of myopia in children and adolescents (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011).

Improves health: Playing in the dirt is correlated with less allergies. According to a 2012 article in Nature children in rural areas are 58% less likely to develop a range of allergies than their equivalent peers in urban areas. In addition, spending time in nature raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues (National Wildlife Federation).

Increases physical activity: Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, at lower risk of obesity or diabetes, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another and more creative (Bell and Dyment, 2006).

Enhances cognitive abilities: Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000).

Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms: Contact with the natural world can significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as five years old (Kuo and Taylor, 2004).

Improves social skills: Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005).

Improves impulse control and self-discipline: Access to green spaces, and even a view of green settings, enhances peace, self-control and impulse control within inner city youth, and particularly in girls (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001).

Reduces stress: Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children. Locations with greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural play areas show more significant results (Wells and Evans, 2003).

Gratitude to NaturalStart.org, the Children in Nature Network and the Children’s Environment Research Group for their assistance.



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