During housebound 2020, local parks and hiking trails have been a haven for families worried about the safety of indoor gatherings. Nature walks and afternoons in the woods have saved the sanity of plenty of kids and parents this year (I speak from personal experience), but science has good news for you: That time outdoors may have positive long-term effects on your children as well.
According to recent research, more time in nature means better mental health for children down the line. Take that as encouragement to keep getting outdoors even as the temperature falls and the pandemic rages through these next difficult months.
Nature is a delayed action antidepressant.
This new study is just the latest in a long line of research showing the incredible physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature for humans of all ages. But the findings from a group of European researchers offer more specific encouragement for parents who are wondering whether it's worth it to wrestle their kids away from their devices and out the door.
To figure out the link between time spent in nature as a kid and mental well being in adulthood, the research team quizzed 3,600 adults from across Europe on both how much time they spent outside as children and their current mental health, as well as their commitment to preserving the environment.
A clear correlation emerged. The more time people spend out of doors when they're young, the fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression they report as adults, and the more likely they are to say that protecting the environment is an important goal. The authors use these findings to call on policy makers to ensure all kids have access to green spaces and parks, but the findings are also useful for Covid-weary parents.
Time in nature is one of the few safe options for families this year, but with fatigue and winter settling in and the epidemiological situation growing increasingly dire, parents may be less motivated to bundle their kids up to brave the outdoors. Science suggests you should resist the call of your comfy couch and make the effort to get outdoors.
Not only is that a great way to get exercise and reduce stress, but you're also probably setting your kids up for a lifetime of greater happiness and a sense of connection with the natural world (which, other studies show, provides its own profound mental health benefits).
How much nature should you aim for?
If you're on board with this recommendation, how much time in nature should you aim for? Science can provide some guidance here as well, though this this research focused on adults, not kids. The large recent study showed a hard boundary at two hours a week. Less time than that spent outdoors had basically no effect. More showed profound benefits.
So persist if you kids whine when you take away the iPad or complain that it's too cold (Scandinavian attitudes toward winter weather might help give them a new perspective). If you can shoo them out the door for a couple hours every week now, their adult selves are likely to enjoy calmer, happier minds.