Supporting a Natural Child

natural_child_wellness_warrior.jpgDepending on your circumstances, it can be all to easy to take access to the outdoors for granted. Living in a rural area, close to a lake, to the ocean, to mountains, to a forest, offers immense benefits to our physical bodies and our psyches, but these opportunities are not necessarily present for people living in poor communities in the cities. Richard Louv, founder of a children’s back-to-nature movement, explores how to build equity and capacity for nature experiences in a recent blog post:

In economically challenged neighborhoods, towns and rural areas, the impact of toxic dumps is well known. The evidence makes it clear that when we poison nature, we poison ourselves. But there’s a second, related threat that is less familiar. What do we know about how human beings, particularly children and their families in poor communities, are affected by the absence of nature’s intrinsic benefits?”

He posits 12 more questions (queries, really) that if answered, might get to the bottom of his primary inquisition. Some of these include:

1. How do different minority or ethnic communities — urban, suburban or rural — connect to nature? What tools and traditions do these communities practice that could be encouraged – and adopted by other groups?

7. How likely is it for teachers or parents to take children to nearby nature or wilderness to learn and explore? And who gets to go to camp?

9. What is, or will be, the impact of the widening income gap on the nature experiences of children?”

Another researcher, Bronwyn Cumbo at the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Australia, is asking similar questions, and looking to technology for the answer. While not explicitly focused on communities of need, Cumbo’s work explores how technology, particularly design software, can help children and parents become more comfortable with being outside and allowing children more free play. Hannah Jenkins from Phys.org explains:

Cumbo's research suggests the cultural shift required to develop a greater affinity for nature is closely linked to the level of independence children have when visiting natural areas. Children who design and direct their own play experiences in nature seem to have a greater understanding and confidence in natural environments than children who visit under close supervision.”

Access to such experiences, particularly in traditionally underserved city communities, could go a long way to helping to answer some of Louv’s questions. Technology then becomes a gateway to more meaningful nature experiences:

If we encourage children and parents to connect more regularly with their local nature and view technology as an enabler instead of a barrier, there's potential for them to become more familiar with the shared natural spaces around them, and more willing to let their children explore and play more freely."

And, as if there was a need for more encouragement to allow children to play freely and be active, Gretchen Reynolds in TheNew York Times, explains new research about children’s activity linked to cognitive ability. An experiment through the University of Illinois tracked the executive functioning abilities of 220 nine and ten-year-olds as a response to a rigorous year-long exercise program. Not surprisingly, the 110 children in the exercise program not only increased their fitness, but also their scores on cognitive tests:

...the children in the exercise group also displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand, than they had been at the start of the program, and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.”

Louv, Cumbo and Reynolds show us that supporting all children (and adults) to be active outside goes a long way to improving our world.

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