One day I found my kids in the yard carrying smooth flat rocks back and forth from the garden to the patio table. I watched them for a little bit with curiosity and finally asked them what they were doing. They told me they were playing sushi restaurant. I guess in their minds the rocks looked like nigiri sushi.
It didn’t take much. Just some rocks in the yard. Over the years those rocks have been sushi, obstacles to jump over, art projects and specimens to look at with a magnifying glass. I’m so thankful for those rocks. They have taught my kids to use their imagination. To get more exercise. To connect with each other. To focus and pay attention to details.
This is why I believe if we teach kids to love nature, nature will teach them. I’m going to share with you 3 reasons why I prescribe nature to kids in my practice. If you are a health care professional, make sure you read to the end to grab a free Nature Prescription you can print and take to your clinic.
NATURE STIMULATES THE MIND
It is unpredictable what you will find when you are out in nature. Kids experience nature with all their senses. They roll down hills, listen to birds, play with pine cones and eat veggies growing in the garden. The unpredictability of not knowing what they will find next enhances their curiosity and stimulates their mind. They are learning by the simple act of being in nature.
In addition, nature provides an opportunity for unstructured play. Kids are forced to make up games on their own without the linear rules of video games or sports. Free play in nature is beneficial to executive functioning and therefore also to a child’s brain development.
NATURE TEACHES MINDFULNESS
Take a moment to imagine what you see and hear when standing on a busy street corner. You will see stop lights, moving cars, and people walking in different directions. You will hear the sounds of the cars, the hum of voices, the chirps of cell phones. There are so many different stimuli to attend to, and this can lead to mental fatigue.
Now take a moment to imagine what you see and hear when standing in a forest. You will see trees and maybe some birds. You will hear nothing at first. But if you really listen, you might hear the faint rustling of the leaves. Or a bird chirping. There are different stimuli but not as numerous as in an urban environment. And not so intense. This has a calming affect on our brains which is why nature has been shown to decrease both depression and anxiety.
Without the distraction of a busy environment, kids have no choice but to be attentive to their surroundings. When they do this, they are learning to be mindful. When kids learn the skill of mindfulness, they can use it to manage their thoughts when they feel stressed.
NATURE ENCOURAGES CONNECTION
When families explore nature together, they share a common experience. This in itself brings people together. Both parents and kids are less likely to use their devices when out in nature which encourages conversation.
Conversation builds connection and meaningful connection plays a huge role in having a healthy lifestyle.
HOW TO PRESCRIBE NATURE TO KIDS
Sometimes families just need a gentle reminder to go outside. We all get stuck in our routines and all it takes is a small ask. It also is important to remind families that going in nature does not have to be a huge task involving a long drive to the woods. Encourage them to go for a walk outdoors if they live in a city. Kids can still play with leaves on the ground and see the sky by simply going outside.
When we prescribe nature to our patients, we are empowering them to make change in their own life. I’ve had teens come back and tell me they have a better relationship with their parents after the whole family started hiking together. This stuff works!
One app I recommend to patients for hiking is AllTrails. It’s a great way to search for trails by location and includes information such as how busy a trail is, how other users rate it, and how difficult it is. (Think Yelp for hiking trails!) The best part in my opinion is a map that shows you your location while you are on the hike so you know you are going the right way.
Nature SMART Goal
I like to challenge families with a nature SMART goal as a way to prescribe nature to kids. As you might recall SMART stands for:
- S – Specific
- M – Measurable
- A – Attainable
- R – Realistic
- T – Time restricted
Before I give the nature goal, I ask a few questions to identify what their access to nature is and to help them identify a time that will work for their schedule. A nature SMART goal may look something like this:
- S – Go on a hike
- M – For 30 minutes
- A – Do they have a car? Are hikes accessible to them? Is it safe to walk in their neighborhood? If not, adjust until it’s attainable.
- R – Ask if this sounds realistic to both the parent and child. If they say “I think so” or “I can try,” I will make another adjustment until they say “Yes, I can do that.”
- T – On the weekend, twice in the next month
GIVE A NATURE PRESCRIPTION
Here’s the fun part. Prescribe nature to kids by writing it down, having them sign and sending them home with a Nature Prescription. Try to get kids to spend 2 hours/week in nature with an end goal of 1 hour/day. Remember, it will be easier to start small and build from there. Make them accountable and write it in their chart so you can ask about it the next time. Have fun with it and ask them to take a photo to show you the next time. This builds connection with your patients and the accountability empowers them to do it.
Some ideas you might suggest to kids are:
- Find 3 different types of leaves
- Play at the park
- Plant something in the garden and water it regularly
- Ride your bike
- Go for a walk or a hike
To make this easier to implement in a busy practice, I have designed a Nature Prescription you can download HERE. Download, print, cut it in thirds then start filling it out to give to your patients. We can empower our kids to get outdoors and let Mother Nature teach them all she has to offer.
“Teach kids to love nature and nature will be their teacher.”-Cherie Chu, MD
A NOTE OF GRATITUDE
I want to take a moment to thank my colleague from residency Dr. Nooshin Razani for all her work in promoting nature for kids. She recently talked to Anderson Cooper about the “Healing Power of Nature” HERE. Her interview was the inspiration for this post. I would also recommend her TED talk called “Prescribing Nature for Health” HERE . Dr. Razani is the founder of the Center for Nature & Health in Oakland, California where she conducts research on the effects of nature on health and runs programming to connect vulnerable populations with minimal access to nature to outdoor spaces.