EARLY CHILDHOOD — Spending Time in Nature is Beneficial to Children and Adults

(Photo: Katie Krause, Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties)
(Photo: Katie Krause, Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties)

By Katie Krause, Extension Educator, Douglas–Sarpy Counties

The daily lives of people across Nebraska continue to be significantly affected by the evolving response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools, zoos, museums, recreational facilities, stores and so many other places are closed. Going to your local playground is not recommended, as the virus has been found to survive on plastic and stainless steel for 2–3 days (N van Doremalen, et al., 2020). However, this is a great time to find ways to play in natural settings. This could be in your own backyard, going for a walk in your neighborhood or getting out to a more natural setting.

Spending time in nature is beneficial to children and adults of all ages. Socially, children are able to negotiate and develop friendships in a different way outdoors, than indoors, as they have more of a sense of freedom outdoors (Warden, 2011). Cognitively, children are learning scientific concepts as they are naturally observing, investigating and forming hypotheses when playing outdoors in natural settings (Thomas and Harding, 2011). Physically, children are more active, which benefits their overall general health (Ward, 2010), and have fewer days of illness and fewer allergic reactions than children who are inside most of the day (Hendricks, 2011). Research has even shown that children who spend more time outside, have a reduced risk of being nearsighted (Sherwin et al., 2012).

Knowing how important time outside is, and with all of the limitations there currently are around social gatherings and public places, here are some ideas for ways to get outside:

• FIND SOMEWHERE ‘WILD’ AND JUST LET CHILDREN PLAY! There are a lot of benefits for children to have free, uninterrupted play in nature. Find a place in the woods, in a grassland or even a small park in the city (just be sure you are only physically around the people who live in your home) and just let children play! Intervene only if absolutely necessary.

• MAKE A NATURE BRACELET — Use clear packing tape, put it on your wrist backwards (sticky side out) and collect items from nature. Get back to the house, cut off the bracelet and put it on paper, or put another piece of tape on the bracelet to preserve the items you found!

• GO ON A SCAVENGER HUNT — You can do this anywhere! Even in very urban areas, and if you had to, even from your windows. Decide what type of scavenger hunt you want to go on, such as a shape or color search. There are templates available online, or make your own. Some of the items you can pick up and collect in a basket or bag, take pictures or just help children write down what they see. You can revisit this multiple times and see if children can go back and find the items again.

• BIRDS OF NEBRASKA — You can do this anywhere; from the window, in your yard or out in nature. Look for birds and try to identify them. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a wonderful resource for all things birds: http://www.birds.cornell.edu or you can use the Nebraska Bird Library’s website http://www.nebraskabirdlibrary.org. Make a bird journal, having children draw the birds they have seen and keep a tally of how many times they see birds of the same species.

• CREATE A NATURE PLAYGROUND IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD — Check out the publication “Nature Play at Home” online at http://www.nwf.org/-/media/NEW-WEBSITE/Programs/ECHO/NWF-ECHO_NaturePlayAtHome for great ideas for some easy-to-construct, free or low-cost backyard play areas. Example: SAND PLAY — Young children love to dig, dump and transfer (moving items such as sand or water from one container to another). While doing this, they are discovering many science and math concepts! You can use sand, soil, small rocks (not for children that still put stuff in their mouths), etc. Put in anything from a small dish bin to a big plastic pool and let children play. Provide an assortment of tools, such as washed-out plastic containers, like yogurt or cottage cheese cups, and old spoons or other cooking utensils. Even very young children can be taught that the materials need to stay in the bins. (Do this by clearly stating, ‘Sand must stay in the bin’, for very young children, stay with them and physically help them keep sand in the bin. Provide a reminder or two, and if they still are dumping items, you can remove the activity or remove them from the area for a while).

These are stressful times for everyone. The more time children spend outside, the more regulated and happier they will be, and the happier the adults who care for them will be, too!