10 ways to get more nature time for your kids

Exciting new research is pointing to a direct link between your child’s health, happiness, their development of skills for a successful life, and the amount of time that they spend outside in nature.
Research from the last 10 years, is highlighting the myriad of benefits that nature has on our bodies, our emotional wellbeing and our cognitive abilities at school and at work.

What about their safety?

Many parents today will admit to having real concerns about their kid’s safety outdoors. Crime, especially here in South Africa, has had a detrimental effect on the freedom children have to play independently in a neighbourhood park, to cycle to school or even walk safely with their family on the mountains or beaches around some urban areas. Other factors, like urban densification, as well as lack of free time in our busy schedules and a lack of safe, nearby green spaces, means that it’s often easier and safer for us to rather have them play indoors. And when the nagging begins of ‘Im bored’, we often feel guilty that we should be entertaining our kids and so give in to the battle of screen entertainment.

Nature as balance to stress

Our kids are more stressed and overloaded with extra-murals and homework than ever before. But regular access to nature is beginning to be seen as no longer just a fun activity we sometimes do, superfluous to other types of children’s activities like organised sports, extra murals and school life on the playground. Scheduling nature time for your kids and the rest of the family in the average busy day is possibly more important for your physical and mental health, overall wellbeing, happiness and longevity than these other more structured activities.
Doctors and GP’s in the UK and USA are now beginning to prescribe a dose of regular nature time, as a relatively cheaper and easily accessible alternative for patients, prior to medications and other physical and psychological interventions. Getting your dose of regular Viatmin N (Nature) is coming up trumps as a first line measure of defence to help your kids stave off anxiety, depression, ADHD, obesity and many more of the detrimental effects of our fast paced, technology driven and hyperindividualised lifestyles.

Plus studies link regular time to play in nature from infancy and beyond adolesence as vital for developing executive functioning in children. Executive functioning is an inter-related set of mental processes that allow people to retain information, focus their attention, problem solve and think creatively, filter out distractions, organize, initiate, make decisions and control emotions. Vital for school-going children and their educational success.

Some easy ideas for more regular nature time

Ensure that your children have access to some nature or nature activity daily. There are no specific guidelines yet in terms of recommended hours, but the more the better, so here are some simple ways and guidelines for you and your kids to have more time in nature every day:

1. Go to parks and botanical gardens with friends. If you don’t have your own garden then schedule a regular playdate with another family for your afternoons at a local park, where you too can get your needed vitamin D boost and nature time too. It doesn't have to cost anything, just identify a safe, green space near to you to meet your friends, bring a ball and let them play.

2. Start a nature table at home of collected nature items you find on walks or around your neighbourhood. Use them creatively to add to nature art at home with water, clay, soil or paint. Allow them to be explored, broken apart and made into new creations, just like they woud be if playing in nature with found objects.

3. Garden with your kids. Get them outside and involved with you, starting a small herb garden or doing simple garden chores like weeding or watering. Be sure to make it feel fun and not like a punishment or difficult chore by letting them have some decision making and even tools for their small hands. Recycle old plastic plant pots for seed experiments. Children thrive with their parent’s attention and involvement and it creates wonderful family bonding time.

4. Hike and walk. Join or start a regular weekend hiking group with friends, so you feel safety in numbers and so there are others with similar aged kids. Add to the fun, by adding in nature challenges like finding animal tracks, geo-caching, creating a painted rock to leave for somone to find, or use the iNaturalist app to identify flora and fauna or go mushroom foraging with somone in the know.

5. Let your kids get dirty. Forget about mess and dirty clothes. Your worries are quickly felt by your kids making them mess-averse and more cautious in their play. Play should be messy to be fun and creative. Take along a backpack always when going outside to play with water and small snack, suncream, change of clothes and a warmer layer or two.

6. Include nature while studying. Before a slot of exam studying, plan a short walk outside with your kids, as this helps the brain to restore and calm itself before periods of stressful cognitive learning. Include short breaks for physical and mental restoration. Ask them to go outside on their breaks, and not engage with their phones. Get them to stand and sky-gaze for 5 to 10 minutes, do a few yoga like stretches, or walk somewhere with abudant nature or even run around the block if safe. Don't forget the power of animal therapy by patting the family pets or smelling different scented plants that you find pleasant.

7. Create a nature filled 'invitation to play'. Before home work and tv in the afternoon, ensure your kids have had some nature time. If its rainy, set up an indoor ‘invitation to play’, a small table or area with some collected nature items, some clay or art materials waiting for them to explore and prompting creativity. Ideas could be painting or drawing on rocks with marker pens, clay and nature creations. Keep the activity open ended as much as possible to allow creative thinking and problem solving.

8. When you host playdates, try and restrain the use of screens and electronic devices. Encourage bike riding and scooters, outside games, tree climbing and fort building, swimming and tag games outside. If they nag for tv or screens, then keep it boundaried with a set amount of time when that is allowed.

9. Create a space in the garden that is theirs to play in, preferably with some cover for rainy days. Keep it surrounded and obscured by trees and plants and allow the child to make it their own and feel hidden. Keep old sticks, pebbles, even big leaves to encourage them to play with all their senses and body, creating a fort or place to have a tea party with their toys.

10. Go to the beach regularly even for a late afternoon stroll with the dogs and family. Vitamin Sea is wonderfully energizing, grounding and calming for us. Create land art by using washed up sea weed, a stick or shell to write your names or create something collaboratively as a family moment. Buckets and spades and a plastic bag to collect litter are useful to keep in the boot for spontaneous beach outtings.