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We all know that getting children outside is good for their bodies. Children who play outdoors every day get more exercise, are more coordinated, and are more physically fit than children who don’t.

Now a new study supports the idea that being outside is good for children’s psychological health too. Researchers at Michigan State University found that children who spend five to 10 hours outdoors each week – about the familiar target of 60 minutes per day – feel more peaceful, happier, and even more spiritually connected to nature than other children do.

In the study, 10 children ages 7 and 8 and their parents participated in interviews, observations, and review of children’s drawings and writing. Seven of the families indicated a Christian religious affiliation. Researchers found a strong relationship between time spent outdoors and feelings of connection with nature, feelings of awe at the power and beauty of nature, and feelings of appreciation for natural order.

In other words, getting children outdoors supports their spirituality and belief in the work of a higher power. To families for whom children’s spiritual growth is important, this study provides a clear direction: let children play outside.

According to researcher Gretal Van Wieren, . “We were surprised by the results. Before we did the study, we asked, ‘Is it just a myth that children have this deep connection with nature?’ But we found it to be true in pretty profound ways.”

However, parents for whom spirituality is not so important should take notice as well. As Van Wieren said, “Modern life has created a distance between humans and nature that now we’re realizing isn’t good in a whole host of ways. So it’s a scary question: How will this affect our children and how are we going to respond?” How can we preserve the earth if children don’t appreciate it?

Support your children’s appreciation of nature and sense of wonder by doing these few things:

  1. Make certain your kids spend an hour outdoors every single day. Remember that just walking or bicycling to school is helpful. Recess and sports count too.
  2. Make certain children’s outdoor time isn’t always organized but that at least some time each week is unstructured time. Time in the backyard is part of this, as well as casual trips to the park or playground. Outdoor play without an agenda is what let’s children notice their surroundings.
  3. Don’t let the weather stop you. Every day means every day, not every day it’s sunny and not too cold or too hot. Weather always looks worse from inside the house. Get out and get into it.
  4. Plan family outings into the wild instead of into the mall. Take a hike, go rowing in the park, find a mountain to climb or a stream to cross. Your town or county park district has lots of great nearby locations. Nature is all around your family.
  5. Turn off your phone and keep it in your pocket. You need an hour away from whomever is trying to reach you.

Notice that getting outdoors doesn’t require any equipment, no knowledge whatsoever, and no planning besides remembering the sunscreen and a bottle of water. If it seems like a big deal, that’s just because we’re so unused to being outside. Stay local, keep your eyes and ears open, and do this every day.

Mother Nature and your children’s inner health will thank you.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.