by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

Most of us spend either a little or a lot of time out watching birds. We do it because we like it, and that fact often traces back to our childhood. A lot of us  played outdoors – in my case, quite a bit. I was lucky enough to be where nature was nearby. It just felt good to be out there, but I was oblivious to all the positive effects of experiencing nature lurking in the background.

Richard Louv, in 2005, published Last Child in the Woods, the manifesto on an unrecognized problem with the way many American children grow. He dubbed it “nature deficit disorder” – the disconnect between children and nature in our multimedia world. The effects of that separation have proven to be stunningly unhealthy for children in our culture. Lack of simple outdoor play in a natural environment has been implicated as, at very least, a contributing factor (if not a root cause) for increased obesity, lower vitamin D levels, cardiovascular disease in adulthood, increased diabetes, increased chance of depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reduced cognitive, creative, problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills, lower school achievement, lower self esteem, and an earlier death. These evidence-based effects cost you and I billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs.

Conversely, children allowed, or even encouraged, to play in natural environments, had much less of the above, but the positive affects included better balance and coordination, higher fitness levels, better distance vision, lower levels of ADHD behaviors, higher creativity, better observation skills, and better reasoning. Put simply, children allowed to experience nature on a regular basis are healthier, happier and smarter.

Studies about nature’s effects on stress and health are a growth industry worldwide. In England, an 18-year study showed that those who lived nearer green space reported less mental distress (after adjusting for variables, like income, education and employment). In the Netherlands, scientists found lower incidence of 15 diseases – including diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease, asthma and migraines, in those people who lived within a half-mile of green space. In Scotland, epidemiologists found the same results for those who lived near green space – even if the study subjects didn’t use the natural areas – and the lowest income people benefitted the most. In Toronto, those with more trees on their city block showed lower levels of stress hormones and mortality, and better heart and metabolic health. Studies in Sweden, Japan, San Francisco, Finland, South Korea, Switzerland and Riker’s Island Prison in New York City all show parallel results. Indeed it has been shown multiple times that being a hospital patient with trees and other plants outside the window decreases recuperation time.

Free play at schools is called recess. Evidence-based studies have shown – since the 1800’s, that people learn better with distributed effort, punctuated by breaks in the learning process. Recess has been shown to increase focus, improve the immune system, increase Vitamin D (which increases learning and productivity), reduces stress (especially in children mildly or overtly hyperactive), helps to mature socialization and perfect communication, reduce obesity and improve overall wellness, and “light up the entire brain” with aerobic activity. Physically active children improve their academic performance, have a better attitude about school, and – ahem — improve their test scores.

And yet, schools are eliminating recess because it wastes valuable time preparing for standardized tests, and kids are spending increasing time in front of a screen, now at an average of seven hours per day – just a bit more time than they spend in their recess-less schools. And, in some classrooms, they watch a “smart board” (read: another screen, only bigger) for a considerable part of their school day.

Indeed, recent budget cuts in our local Kalispell elementary schools have put pressure on administrators to eliminate some, or all, field trips into the natural outdoors. This is the ironic background situation to us at FAS building boardwalks and trails in Owen Sowerwine Natural Area, trying to make it easier for children to access a convenient, gorgeous river bottom forest right next to town.

Perhaps there should be “research literacy” standards (and comparative tests, of course) for school administrators, school board members, and especially, taxpayers. Ignorance of the above kinds of evidence-based facts, is, or at least should be, at least misdemeanor malpractice. The sensory deprivation tank we call “the classroom” will never be where problems with education will be solved. It is by definition abstract and less “real”. Children need a classroom with walls at the outer edge of the Universe. Nature works as a time-tested pathway to children’s well being. School bus costs aside, we need to find a way to get them there.

In Finland, where comparative reading and math proficiencies are at or near the top in the world year after year (ours are not), children in schools have an outdoor 15-minute recess every hour of the school day, and there is no testing other than a graduation proficiency exam. Children are encouraged to play outdoors, because imaginative play is seen as children’s work, and is properly seen as one of the primary ways children learn. They get it. It does take a large, large village to properly raise

a child.

In the larger human picture, who does not belong to the place from which we rose, and to where we shall return? This, I think, points to a very ancient and basic genetic understanding that nature – where we have spent ninety-nine percent of our pre-historical time as a species – is our true home. The peopled, indoor concrete, asphalt, virtual-screened world we have created is only a small fraction of the story of us.