Connect Children to Nature

Making mud pies, watching an anthill or skipping rocks on the water: many adults remember enjoying such outdoor activities as children.  However, research show that today's children spend less time outdoors.  This disconnection from nature in childhood obesity, an increase in behavior-regulating medications and even a fear of the outdoors, says Cheryl Clark, a family life program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Kids spend more than seven hours a day with various electronic media and it's impairing their development, Cheryl said.  Children need connections to the natural world as a regular part of their healthy growth and development.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children be physically active for at least 60 minutes throughout a day and limit time with electronic media to two hours per day.

Parent, friends, and family have the most influence in getting youth to participate in outdoor activities.  "When children spend time outdoors, they are more likely to have higher levels of physical activity.  Exposure to nature can reduce stress levels by as much as 28 percent in children as well," Clark said.

"Think of nature as a learning laboratory.  Children love to explore the outdoors - they can touch, listen, and smell," Cheryl Clark suggested.

Learning with nature has many benefits, Cheryl continued.  It strengthens powers of observation and imagination and enhances motor skills including balance, coordination and agility.  It increases a child's sense of wonder and inspires lifelong learning.  In addition, learning with nature improves academic success, social interaction and personal health.

Organizations, schools or neighborhoods may be interested in starting a Nature Explore Families' Club.  Families meet monthly during the school year to do thematic activities and explore the natural spaces in their community.  "A club will connect families with the outdoors and each other," Clark said.

The Toolkit for Families is designed to inspire children 3 to 8 years old to be good stewards of the environment.  Topics include plants, energy, air, bugs, water, soil and human health.  "The activities would be fun to include while on vacation," Cheryl Clark said.

Both kits are available free to download from  Start by clicking on the Family Resources tab.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is working closely with Nature Explore, a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.  "The goal is to connect more children to nature and to offer training to support adults who work with preschoolers and elementary- aged children in school," Cheryl explained.

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