A disconnection from nature can affect everything in a child from gut health and immunity, to mental health and even the way they think, recent research has revealed.
Playing in nature used to be a part of everyone’s childhood but researchers say it has become an increasingly foreign concept in Western countries with changes to the way we live, the places we live in and advances in technology.
“Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence [your] life course’s wellbeing,” Canadian naturopath and health researcher Alan Logan said.
“And this is not just one or two studies, there have been several studies combined that have clearly shown this connection.”
Mr Logan is one of the keynote speakers at a Children and Nature conference held in Perth this weekend, that has attracted specialists from around the world.
Mr Logan said studies show nature has positive impacts on stress levels and depression.
“Even a view out the window in an academic setting or the workplace, can influence stress and so forth as well as performance,” he said.
Research also showed nature had a positive impact on children who have been diagnosed with impulsivity, hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder and it even influences the way people relate to each other, Mr Logan said.
“One of the really important things about those early life connections to nature relates to empathy, and empathy of course is your ability to understand and to take another’s perspective.”
Nature encourages children to ask questions
Exposure to nature also has important physiological impacts, said paediatrics specialist Professor Susan Prescott from the University of Western Australia.
“When we’re in contact with nature we’re in contact with all sorts of microbial elements with vitamin D from the sunlight, and of course physical exercise which are all good for our physical health,” Professor Prescott said.
“These in turn impact on the body’s immune system and our immune system influences just about every aspect of our physical health and our mental health.”
Former WA chief scientist Lyn Beazley said children needed to experience nature as much as possible because it was good for their growing brains.
“It allows them to ask all sorts of questions,” Professor Beazley said.
“Why is the sky blue? Why do I see the moon during the day? [Why the] grass is green?
“When they ask the questions and address it themselves, that’s when the brain gets that extra stimulation and we know the brain is growing hugely at this time, making lots of new connections for life.”
Professor Beazley said the onus is on parents and carers to ensure children get their nature fix but schools also played an important role.
Parents pleased with school’s outdoor approach
North Fremantle Primary has free ranging chickens, vegetable patches and bushy play spaces.
Deputy principal Belinda Baldey said parents and teachers were seeing the benefits.
“I think it reflects in the classrooms,” she said.
“When we’re doing things, you really see how well the children work collaboratively, how well they’re able to build on each other’s ideas, how well they problem solve.”
Parent Ailbhe Travers, whose daughter has Asperger’s, said the school’s approach to learning was a drawcard.
“Lily calls herself a tree when she comes outside,” Ms Travers said.
“She describes being clear headed and feeling free and obviously that makes her much more able to concentrate on the tasks she has ahead of her on a daily basis at school.”
As a consequence Ms Travers said her daughter loves going to school.
The Children and Nature conference is being held in Fremantle and is a first for Western Australia.