By Jennifer Fishpool and Amanda Goode
What is the one thing that you can do as a childminder (or anyone caring for young children,) that is enormously beneficial for both yourself and the children in your care?
The answer is to regularly spend time in outdoor natural environments.
Physical health benefits:
Most people know that getting exercise is good for our health, but did you know it has been shown that exercising outside is especially beneficial?
1. Better energy levels: We can all feel a bit ‘meh’ at times, especially in the colder and darker winter months. However studies show that doing exercise outside can make us feel more energised and positive in ourselves.
2. Improved eyesight: Being short-sighted is becoming an increasingly common problem. Playing outdoors more can help reduce a child’s risk of becoming short sighted. It is thought that exposure to natural light helps eyes develop in a healthy way and being able to exercise our eyes by looking to things in the distance is also extremely beneficial.
3. Healthy sleep: Sleep is absolutely essential for both our physical and mental health. Spending time outside helps you sleep better. Children are much more likely to engage in vigorous exercise outside and a study by Liverpool John Moores University discovered that babies who are exposed to plenty of natural light in the afternoon sleep better and longer.
4. Better immune system: When our skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces vitamin D. This is important for many body processes, including our immune system.
5. Avoiding germs and viruses: We now should all know that a good way to avoid inhaling other people’s germs and viruses is to be outside and let them blow away!
Think of all the things children are asked to keep contained when they are inside. They are told not to run, jump or shout but outside they can go big! This helps with:
6. Better cardiovascular health: Children should be given plenty of opportunities to run until they are out of breath. This is tricky if you only have a small, confined space. Make sure you take children places where they can really stretch their legs and run! This will have great benefits for their cardiovascular health.
7. Stronger bones: Being able to jump helps strengthen bones.
8. Better physical endurance: Going on nature walks means that children get used to walking for longer distances. However if they are having fun they will probably not notice and may surprise you how far they can walk if you give them time to build up their endurance.
9. Better sense of balance: When you go for a walk in nature you are much more likely to encounter different surfaces to walk and balance on. Inside or around town, surfaces tend to be flat and free of obstacles but in natural environments surfaces can be bumpy, sticky, muddy, unstable etc. Walking on these sorts of surfaces helps children build up their strength and sense of balance.
10. Stronger lungs: Shouting helps exercise our lungs. We have to take in bigger breaths to be able to shout!
Benefits for Mental Health
11. Reduced anxiety, stress and depression: Research has shown that spending time in a green environment like a forest can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. It has also been shown that exposure to natural light helps boost self-esteem and promote a better mood.
12. Increased resilience: If you teach children to look out for and love the little everyday occurrences in nature, for example the dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement or the friendly neighbourhood robin that sings from a tree, you are providing them with a wealth of ‘little joys’ to fall back on and that are always there when things are tough.
13. Less technological ‘overload’: Spending time outside in nature helps us ‘switch off’ from the modern bombardment of information.
14. Aids cognitive development: Young children love being outside where there is so much to see and discover and when we spend time in nature ALL of our senses are being stimulated.
15. Greater attention span: Researchers at the University of Michigan found that spending just one hour interacting with nature helps increase attention spans by up to 20%.
16. Learning to love nature: David Attenborough is known (amongst other things!) for saying ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’ In going outside and experiencing and making an effort to notice the natural world where we live – whether that be by visiting a woodland or a park, watching the birds, noticing the native plants growing in cracks in the pavement or simply by observing the weather – we can hopefully learn and encourage children to learn to love and help protect our natural world.
If you would like to start making more of the benefits that exploring nature with your children bring why not take part in our special ‘Forest Childcare January Challenge’? This is a series of 31 outdoor nature themed mini tasks to complete which we are publishing one a day on our ‘Forest Childcare Association‘ Facebook page throughout the month of January.