mental health
Crib Notes

How A Love Of Nature Makes Your Kid Smarter, More Creative, And Less Distracted

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t choke them, go here.

Congratulations parents of developed countries: you’ve made the world a more secure, sterile place and the only the wild creatures that your kid encounters are voiced by B-list celebrities. Rubber playground safety surfaces have replaced character-building dirt. Your nature preserve has a Chipotle. Richard Louv, who wrote the prescient 2005 book Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was one of the first to suggest that all that safety might have a few downsides.

Louv isn’t suggesting you let your kid go full feral; rather, he’s pointing out that kids these days get too much gym and not enough jungle, and that maybe those old nature-loving hippies were on to something. After all, they called organic farming, yoga, and legal weed.

Flickr / Amanda Tipton

Here are the main takeaways and most actionable advice from Last Child In The Woods.

Playing Outside Should Be Wild
To get the healthy benefits of outdoor play, you need to be the right outdoors. Louv quotes a study that links a sedentary childhood with mental health problems, but that doesn’t mean you can soccer practice your way out of it. The healthiest, non-sedentary activities are those in unstructured, natural spaces — the ones without carefully painted lines and adults with whistles wearing short shorts. Need proof? Childhood participations in organized sports has increased dramatically over the years … but so have obesity rates.

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What You Can Do With This

  • Keep off the manicured lawns. Studies show that children who played in rocky, uneven, tree-filled areas had better balance and agility than their flatland and concrete counterparts.
  • Don’t bring along any representative toys. In other words, let the sticks and mounds and hills become the swords, fortresses, and delicious mud pies to boost the imagination. Leave the LEGOs at home.
  • Step back as much as possible. Being able to take risks and problem-solve helps kids build self-esteem, which cuts risks for depression or other mentally stressful states. In fact, kids who were regularly exposed to nature have been found to be more resilient to high-stress situations.
  • Restorative and health benefits of nature come just from looking at it. One study found that by having green spaces outside of a child’s window could reduce symptoms of ADD.
  • Going outside is the most inexpensive thing you can do for your kid’s mental and physical health. That stick? Free. That creek? Also free. That tree house? That’s an hourly rental.

Outdoor Kids Are Smarter
Louv contends that while it seems like the internet has made us smarter, the research says American children lack in experiential knowledge. If you add what is called “loose-parts” green time — where objects in nature are combined to build just about anything — kids begin to perform mental tasks much better.Flickr / Amanda Tipton

What You Can Do With This

  • Let them build. Constructing forts and dugouts is an amazing way for kids to experiment and learn about natural sciences and their own capabilities. If they’re really capable, they’ll build a treehouse with monkey butlers.
  • Foster more outside playgroups with friends, particularly for kids that have a strong creative bent. One Swedish study found that on blacktop playgrounds, physical ability established the pecking order, but in the wilder places, creative children became the leaders (see: Flies, Lord Of The).
  • Encourage use of all the senses. Sight and touch are the most commonly used, but hearing and smell are central to really understanding the outdoors beyond all the obvious tactile experiences. Your kid can learn as much sitting in a field as they can climbing trees (and they’re way less likely to break their arms that way, too).

Everything You Need To Know About Richard Louv's Flickr / Mike Goren

Speak For The Trees
You probably feel no small amount of angst about the world you’re leaving behind for your kids (Raffi does, and he doesn’t even have kids), but they’re the ones who are going to ultimately deal with it. Kids are important to the process of protecting the environment, and Louv notes not many environmental organizations focus on educating kids. Raise a kid who appreciates the woods and they’re that much more likely to grow into an adult who’s inspired to clean up the mess they inherited.

What You Can Do With This

  • Build a connection to an outdoor place that’s special to them, so they understand that it should be preserved. It doesn’t have to be Yellowstone … but maybe make it a little cooler than Jellystone.
  • Encourage involvement in school programs, classes or organizations that help them protect the place they love in real ways. Don’t talk so much about saving the rainforest, which is important but won’t mean much to a kid who doesn’t realize there’s a South America yet, let alone rainforests. Instead, talk about saving the fish in your nearby pond — because those guys are delicious.