Common sense tells us that kids who get outside often are in better shape both mentally and physically than those who don’t. Science, distilled into reams of research papers, tells us much the same. Not only does nature provide children with a forum to get the vitamins (D, mostly) and the exercise they need to thrive, but it also alleviates symptoms of many disorders, negating to some degree the need for medication. Nature may or may not be the best medicine, but it is certainly a potent one — far more potent, new research indicates, than parents once thought.
Studies of the most prevalent neurobehavioral disorder in children, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, presents some of the strongest evidence for a “nature fix.” Frances E. Kuo, an associate professor at the University of Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, demonstrated in 2004 that exposure to nature reduces ADHD symptoms across the board in children.
Her study tracked 452 American kids between the ages of 5-18. She found that common leisure activities conducted in relatively natural outdoor environments, like the backyard or local greenspaces, reduced children’s ADHD symptoms significantly more than the same activities done indoors or in “built outdoor” settings (think: playgrounds). Kuo’s findings were consistent across age, gender, geography, and income group, as well as across severity of diagnosis.
Since Kuo’s groundbreaking work, other scientists have done studies that show a positive effect of nature on cognitive development and attention in children. Notably a long-term study that ran from 2003 to 2013, which was published last year, demonstrated a correlation between attention and access to green spaces While clinical trials have yet to be conducted on nature as a treatment for ADHD — it’s a bit unclear what that might look like — it does appear that spending time in nature is an inexpensive and side-effect-free option for helping kids focus.
“Increasingly the research is showing that outdoor and nature play is incredibly important for kids, for both their cognitive and emotional development,” says Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. “And sadly, they’re getting less of it all the time in the digital age.”
Williams is optimistic about research coming out of Swiss “forest kindergartens,” programs where kids spend almost the entire school day — regardless of weather — in the woods. The data indicates that young children in these programs, which are starting to find an audience in America as well, develop a greater capacity to regulate their emotions, self-soothe, and engage in teamwork. Evidence is mounting that setting may matter more than the curriculum or, in a sense, serve as a vital teaching aid.
But not all benefits of nature exposure are mental. There are concrete and easily understood physical benefits to fresh air for growing children. Research now shows that some of the nature-induced perks that kids had 300 years ago, before the urbanization brought forth by the Industrial Revolution, are gone; sacrificed to the march of progress.
Take Asthma, the world’s most common chronic childhood disease and a source of difficulty for millions. One study in Europe found that growing up on a farm protects against the development of asthma, hay fever, and atopic sensitization like eczema because the kids are exposed to more microbial compounds (think: soil and farm animals), which are believed to stimulate the immune system. Researchers surveyed more than 3,500 parents with children aged 6 to 13, who live in the rural areas of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. They surveyed both farming and non-farming families. The scientists showed that the children who were exposed to farm environments like stables the longest (five years) had the lowest frequencies of asthma, hay fever, and atopic sensitization.
Another study out of Italy in 2014, investigated whether childhood asthma could be related to Vitamin D deficiency. Science has already demonstrated that Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that’s mainly acquired through sunlight, so the premise is that our increasingly indoor-centric lives could be contributing to the development of asthma in our kids. Plus, doctors already know, through several epidemiological studies, that low Vitamin D levels during a woman’s pregnancy are inversely associated with her child’s risk of developing respiratory infections and wheezing. The results of the 2014 study suggest an association strong enough to warrant more research on the topic, and the researchers called for randomized, double-blinded, controlled trials to determine Vitamin D’s role in childhood asthma.
While the solution may not be as simple as telling kids to go outside and get dirty, some experts think that might be a practical short-term solution pending longer-term research. Peter Hoffmeister, director of the Integrated Outdoor Program for high school students in Eugene, Oregon, incorporates gardening into his program so that teens can get their hands dirty. “Kids who are exposed to more microbials have stronger immune systems, but it’s more than just the immune system,” says Hoffmeister, who is also the author of Let Them Be Eaten by Bears: A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids into the Great Outdoors. “It’s also being shown to improve mood and help with anxiety and depression.”
It’s enough to advance the idea that doctors may one day write prescriptions to “Go outside and play.” While telling kids to go outside and play certainly isn’t new, the context of the request will have shifted. It’s no longer a reflex action or a convenient way for parents to get kids out from underfoot. Telling kids to go outside and play is an act of care. And a difficult one at that, as children (and their parents) have less access to nature than ever before. But it’s critical, not only for kids’ health, but for the health of the environment. A 2017 study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that kids who play outdoors are more likely to protect nature as adults. That makes “Go outside and play,” an equally important prescription for the planet.
Until then, Williams says our kids’ connection with nature starts with us. “It’s part of our job as parents to foster that in our children’s lives.”