by Denny Olson

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 closest to 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 Rikers Island 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 (although, in fairness I know some great teachers who use sneakily-structured free play to set up lessons). Evidence-based studies have shown, since the 1800’s, that people learn better with distributed effort, punctuated by breaks in the learning process. Outdoor 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.

Further erosion of outdoor time is accomplished by simple perception. Mass media sensationalizes the rare – and becoming more rare, crime on a child, producing even more overprotective parents with a bunker mentality regarding playing outside.  With the exception of the unprecedented pandemic years, violent crime rates are dropping, but we are hearing about it more. Politicians whose goal it is to scare the public into voting for them use misplaced fear to their own ends. Lawyers are ready to sue for reckless endangerment at the drop of a hat, and the bureaucratic public educational system views the status quo as far more important than mountains of evidence to the contrary. We design our education system to prepare our children for rote nineteenth and twentieth century work (assembly line) and the twenty-first century will demand the kinds of work that will require the creativity honed from the arts, music, and unfettered creative outdoor play.

Perhaps there should be “research literacy” standards (and comparative tests, of course) for school administrators and school board members. Ignorance of the above kinds of evidence-based facts is, or at least should be considered, a form of malpractice. The sensory deprivation tank we call “the classroom” will never be where problems with education will be solved. 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. Bussing costs aside, we need to find a way to do it.

Reminder to taxpayers, school board members, administrators, teachers and over-protective parents: It’s about the kids. Your degrees of over-caution and frugality can take a bite out of their future. The outdoors is one of the basic intellectual and emotional food groups. Let’s feed them what they need. 

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to perserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 

Aldo Leopold