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how does nature improve our wellbeing?

We know that we all FEEL better when we are or have been outside in the fresh air, but how does that actually link to a REAL improvement in our health? Compared to many other health improvement options for ourselves and our children why is NATURE soooo good? In the past 50 years there has been an increase in urbanisation across the UK and this has coincided with a technological revolution, whereby all of us now have access to information 24/7. A recent Ofcom study highlighted that children aged 5-15 spend on average 2hrs 11 mins per day on some form of electronic device and this is likely to have increased amongst younger children during the pandemic, because more learning, home schooling, contact with family and friends has been done online. A National Trust survey in 2018 found that children on average spend more than 50% less time outdoors than their parents did, at just over 4 hours per week. More time online, has lead to changes in our children’s behaviour. Many now look to devices for their entertainment and stimulation, they seek pleasure from accessing online content and less time accessing outdoor spaces and the natural world. If we combine this with the more narcissistic tendencies fuelled by social media these days, whereby we see children using the number of “likes” to determine their self worth, it is no wonder that we are experiencing more mental health problems, more stress, anxiety and fear in our children than ever before. BUT - this pause that the pandemic has created in our lives, has given us the unique window of opportunity to really profit emotionally from this time and build upon our increased connection with nature and the outdoors. For many families their time outside has offered respite from hours spent inside and isolated from their friends and wider support networks. Children and families may be starting to feel more engaged with these spaces and see them as an extension of their world. Garden centres have tried to keep up with the demand for seeds and equipment to enable us to start growing more fruit and vegetables. Country parks and farms have started to see unprecedented numbers of families visiting them and exploring footpaths and bridleways that had remained virtually undisturbed for years. We have started a relationship with our countryside, nature, wildlife and food and its origins, that many of us didn’t have before. But nature isn’t just about geography, it's about a lot more than that. It's a proven fact that spending time in nature (as little as 30 mins per day) can improve our mood, lower our blood pressure and it makes us feel more relaxed. Being outside stimulates our children senses and as they feel the cold breeze on their faces or the sun on their backs, even the wind in their hair, their sensations start to come alive and their brains start to relax. Encouraging more time outside whether that is walking, exploring while doing a scavenger hunt, searching for mini-beasts or collecting resources for a craft project, all increase physical activity. This physical activity increases their appetite and this in turn (hopefully) increases healthy eating. Healthy eating helps to maintain our blood sugar levels and aids good quality sleep...can you see where this is going?

More than this though...being outside doesn’t just improve our children’s physical health and mental health it also helps them to regulate their emotions.

The time to explore and play, aids their overall wellbeing.

Cognitively, they learn more about their environment, the ecology of outside spaces and how these interconnect with birds, insects, wildlife and the co-dependency between these species.

They learn about the changing seasons, just by spending time outside throughout the year and the food being produced locally. This raises awareness about where their food comes from, how it starts out before it lands on their plates. They can make a connection between wheat and flour and therefore bread.

They can make the connection between cows and milk and, dare I say, our burgers. The cow that eats the freshest, lushest grass is going to produce milk with the most nutrients and is also going to be living their best life.

The hen that has a field or open space to roam around in is going to lay the best eggs and going to be happier and healthier than the hen that spends all day in a confined space … the comparison between the hen's life and their own is also an interesting one to discuss!

This cognitive process starts to broaden their vocabulary and extend their language and communication. It builds their knowledge of the environment and enables them to understand why they shouldn’t leave gates open or rubbish behind when they spend time in the countryside.

Understanding the natural world more, improves our children’s confidence when they access these spaces and they become more self-aware. It helps them to regulate their emotions and to exercise self-control because there is space to be, where they can express themselves without feeling or looking silly. Some of their inhibitions fall away and things start to make sense, they feel a part of something greater than themselves. Their world has no walls, they are truly a part of it - they are connected.

This shapes their internal ethics and attitudes, it encourages them to take care and to be responsible for their actions and its the whole experiential learning element. They understand why they shouldn’t chop the heads off of flowers or trample over newly planted soil because they understand that bees rely on flowers for their food and that lambs and sheep rely on grass and birds on hedgerows to survive. They are making those choices, not because WE are telling them, but because THEY care and value this space and have actual experience and have knowledge of it themselves.

These lessons last for a lifetime, they are lived experiences and not just things they are being told and will forget in a few days. The longevity of these experiences can be life changing - literally.

As children spend more time in nature their creativity and imagination grow without adult supervision and they become more able to self-support and develop resilience through play. They learn about risk - seeking challenge, for example in climbing a tree, is something as a parent we may want to protect our child from, however these are essential activities to help build confidence, cope with failure and contextualise risk through THEIR own experience and not through some pseudo virtual online one.

As our children progress towards adulthood, their ability to assess environmental risk is an essential strategy to coping and, on occasions, to surviving. Contextual risk and our inbuilt ability to assess that risk is a basic human survival skill and, in a society where we are no longer safe from threats in our own homes (with online safety being one of the fastest growing safeguarding concerns), our child's self-confidence, awareness, ability to communicate and just simply “knowing” when something is not right can be essential. These skills are all developed in the early years and assisted by access to the natural world. A child with low self-esteem is far more likely to engage with a stranger online who is showing them attention or paying them complements when their self-esteem is low and they want to feel better about themselves. So, hopefully you will see, that what starts with a simple habit like being outdoors and in nature on a regular basis, is really something that is building essential foundations for your child's future and to deprive them of this opportunity doesn’t only deprive them and you of lots of great shared memories, it can also deprive them of lots of skills, that will support them through life.


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