Sitting at my desk this week, all I hear is the sound of birds chirping, singing and calling to each other. The distant sounds of the highway fade away to the background. Even the neighborhood dogs can’t compete with the birds in springtime.
Relaxing sounds can soothe people, lower our heart rates and stimulate production of endorphins. Of course “relaxing” is in the ear of the beholder; but for me, the sounds of the birds are in that category. There is a reason why so many recordings of guided meditations tend to focus on images of nature, such as waterfalls, mountains, beaches and forests. The natural world has the capacity to nurture us, make us feel calm and supported, even improve our sleep. But thinking about connecting with nature leads to the unfortunate fact that many of us just don’t spend enough time outdoors.
Most alarming is the fact that children don’t spend nearly as much time outdoors as they used to, in fact only half as much time as they did twenty years ago. Very few play outside on their own, yet research shows that unstructured free play in the outdoors has many benefits to them – ranging from doing better in school, to being more cooperative, to just being healthier overall.
Something as simple as a view of nature helps to reduce stress in children who are highly stressed, and daily proximity to nature can help children focus, even reducing symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Playing in nature also serves the important purpose of giving children the opportunity to take appropriate risks, solve problems and develop creativity, which can lead to enhanced self-esteem.
So many benefits! Yet finding the time, a safe space, adults who are comfortable enough in nature to guide children – all are barriers. Luckily, a few organizations are working to make sure that the next generation has a taste for nature:
- The Children & Nature Network, whose mission aims to “give every child in every community a wide range of opportunities to experience nature directly”, has tips on their web site for starting your own family nature club, along with other ideas.
- The National Wildlife Federation has a nature Activity Finder on their website that is focused this month on bird-themed activities.
- The No Child Left Inside Coalition is an advocacy group with almost 2,000 member organizations from across the country that seeks to raise awareness in Congress and among the public of the need for more environmental education in schools. The coalition was formed after many programs were cut in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act.
- The National Environmental Education Association has a children and nature initiative, with many resources on their web site. One of their strategies is training pediatric care providers to “prescribe nature”.
As Thoreau once wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness … We can never have enough of nature.”