What the research says
Here are some statistics from 2014 regarding children (0-17 yrs old) taking psychiatric drugs in the United States. For ADHD, 4.4 million; antidepressants, 2.1 million; anti-anxiety, 2.1 million- in total over 8 million children in the US are taking some sort of psychotropic drug. In addition, one in five kids in the US are obese. Children with obesity are at higher risk for having other chronic health conditions and diseases that impact physical health, such as asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and risk factors for heart disease. What if outdoor education programs, neighborhood gardening projects or just short breaks in a green space improved, not only academic achievement, but also health and well-being.
There are many scientific studies regarding the benefits of nature experience for human health and well-being including mood, cognition and health. There is a huge library of information regarding children and nature on the Children and Nature Network at: http://www.childrenandnature.org/learn/research/ if you want to learn more or find studies to support outdoor or place-based education programs for students. This collection of research helps greatly to unfold a justification for the blending of outdoor education and school curriculum.
Richard Louv is at the heart of the Children and Nature movement. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Louv has collected a large amount of research about the many benefits of being in nature. Louv reports on restorative quality of nature in terms of physical and mental health, but also on the development of cognitive abilities. Some of the research-based indicators for this are: unstructured play allows children to use problem-solving skills, imagination and negotiating skills with peers; children’s natural curiosity leads to scientific learning in content and process; daily exposure to natural settings is associated with ability to focus. Basically there is research to support the fact that nature experience is linked to better performance in school.
In Fabor and Kue’s 2009 study, Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park, children with ADHD show significant improvement in concentration after a 20 minute walk in a green space. The concentration scores of those with ADHD who walked in a park began to approach those of children without ADHD. The effect was similar to that of two common types of ADHD medication. The data reinforces my own notion that kids need time in the outdoors to work off some of their excess energy making them able to approach their school work in a better state of mind. If 20 minutes in a green space allows a child not to have to take anesthetizing drugs to concentrate in school, wouldn’t that be worth it? Over 4 million children take ADHD medications. Greenwood and Gatersleben’s 2016 study suggest that spending short school breaks in a natural environment with a friend can have a significant positive impact on the psychological wellbeing of teenagers. There is research that shows that being in a green spaces can decrease anxiety and stress (Mayer & Frantz, 2014). With over 2 million children on anxiety medication and 2 million on anti-depressants, these findings could have a significant impact on children’s depression and anxiety and reduce the number of children on psychotropic drugs.
And though it makes perfect logical sense that outdoor play can help with obese youth and the diseases that come with a sedentary life style, there is research to support this. Howard Frumpkin is a medical doctor who has published on the issue of the environment and health matters.
I could write a whole dissertation on this topic and a full review of the research would make for a very long chapter two literature review. I just reviewed a small bit of the wealth of research on the benefits of nature for children.