Too many of us treat time outdoors like it's dessert, something only to indulge in once chores are finished and the "to do" list is done (like that ever happens...). Vitamin "N" (for "nature") is essential for healthy human function.
Science shows a daily dose of Vitamin "N" (time outdoors) helps:
- Moderate the effect of stressful events (e.g., switching daycares, moving, divorce, etc.)
- Improve cognitive function, self-discipline and resilience under stress
- Improve impulse control and boost immune function
- Reduce obesity, stress and the incidence of clinical depression
- Improve academic performance
- Decrease blood sugars
- Make people more generous
- Lower rates of aggression
- Combat loneliness
What pill, vitamin, or energy drink can do all that?
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Over the last decade, researchers have documented what most of us know intuitively: nature is good for learning, health and well-being. Being regularly immersed in the outdoors can reduce stress and symptoms of attention-deficit disorders AND boost immunity, energy levels and creativity. Plus, children who spend time in nature are far more likely to care about protecting it later in life. (Of course, all of the above applies to caregivers as well as kids, with additional benefits including improved workplace performance and increased job satisfaction.)
Most children are curious explorers, so you don't need to do much to cultivate their nature connectedness — just take them outside!
The challenge for parents, caregivers and teachers is more about how to get out of their way while keeping them, the plants and critters safe. Here, are five simple ways you and the kids in your life can get a daily dose of Vitamin "N":
1: Watch your language
"Ick." "Ew." "Gross." Adults say those words about nature — in front of kids — probably without even realizing it. Try not to squelch curiosity about nature. Instead, teach kids about touching, holding and exploring nature safely. Some things to suggest:
- Toilet tissue or a cup and paper can help relocate spiders.
- Leave some snails behind to work in the garden and for other kids to find.
- No slugs in the hand (the sticky slime is impossible to get off).
- Bees are fun to watch, not touch.
- Ant hills are best observed from a distance.
- Caterpillars need to be released to morph into butterflies or moths.
- Wasps and bees need space because they can sting.
2: Read and eat outside
Sometimes the easiest way to increase time in nature is to take what you normally do inside and do it outside! Host story time or snack/lunch time on the grass or under a tree.
3: Make a nature discovery kit
To a reusable cloth bag, add: a bug bungalow or a mason jar with air holes (much better than pockets), a butterfly net, a magnifying glass and a dip net (to explore streams and ponds). Then head for a local park, beach or boulevard.
4: Plan a scavenger hunt
Grab a few brown paper bags (one per child or team) to fill with the suggested items. Search for colours, shapes and objects e.g., "something smooth, oval and red". Items could start with different letters of the alphabet, or even spell a child's name — a great birthday party activity!
5: Make a bee bath
Busy bees get thirsty. But they're crash landers! Open water, like a creek or pond (even a bird bath) means bees risk drowning. Help them get a drink of water and prevent drownings:
- Place a shallow plate in your yard or garden at ground level where you've noticed bee activity.
- Add a few rocks to the plate to create landing pads or islands.
- Add fresh water but don't submerge the stones.
- Refill as needed.
To realize the full benefits of time spent in nature, turn off your cell phone ringer that sounds like a bird or cricket and listen for the real thing!
Nature is calling. Will you answer?
Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki's Queen of Green