A professor of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, Dr. Harber is a leading Canadian researcher in the area of physical literacy. She says the outdoors plays a critical role in developing physical literacy in our children.
Active for Life recently interviewed Dr. Harber to get her insights into the role of nature in child development, as well as the problems of hyper-parenting and how we can reconnect our children with the natural world.
1. We hear more about concepts like “nature deficit disorder” and how kids need to connect with nature for proper development. What makes nature so important for our children?
To start, it goes right back to a basic element of physical literacy. It’s about introducing children to a variety of stimulating activity environments for their healthy physical, mental, cognitive and emotional development.
2. How does nature enhance physical literacy?
There are a growing number of studies that show there are huge benefits. For example, we know that if children play in nature they have better grades in school, better focus, better cognitive function and better creativity.
There are also studies that have compared the effects on children who play outdoors and those who play indoors. Children who play outdoors show greater degrees of reduced stress, reduced aggression, and increased happiness than the children who play indoors.
In relation to nature and the outdoors, developing physical literacy is about abandoning classroom walls. It’s about letting our kids go out into the world to experience and explore the unpredictability of nature. It’s key to their learning.
3. What is different about nature?
The outdoors is generally an unpredictable movement and sensory environment, especially if you’re moving around trees in the forest, or where the terrain is less even and predictable.
When children are allowed to move around in these environments and explore, it enhances a lot of the skills required to build physical literacy. It also contributes to physical resilience at a very young age.
4. A lot of today’s parents grew up in and around nature. Is it really much different for our kids today?
If we look at children between the ages of 6 and 14, we know that our children are overweight, and their activity levels are shockingly low, and they are very connected to media such as computers, television and video games.
And when we look at parents, we see helicopter parents who basically wrap their kids in bubble wrap, who create these hyper-sanitized environments in an effort to make their kids “safe”.
The parenting trend in recent years has been to protect our children from struggle. We don’t let them struggle in school, and we don’t let them struggle physically. That includes being in nature, where things are unpredictable, and it’s difficult to avoid a grazed knee or getting a bit dirty.
Our society has become intolerant of “failure” and “imperfection”, and anything that is done less than perfectly is devalued. But being in nature and exploring the outdoors should not be evaluated as a “success” or “failure”.
5. What does the research say about the effects of nature on child development? Schooling? Social well-being?
The literature highlights the importance of having lots of open space. We know that when children are allowed to move outdoors, they move more and their movement is more intense. They will engage in much more moderate to vigorous activity of their own free will compared to when they are indoors.
In fact, the effect is so pronounced, there are places in the U.S. where outdoor activity has become a strategy for the treatment and prevention of childhood obesity.
6. What can parents do to get their children active in nature?
It’s not just about taking kids for a walk in the woods. It’s about establishing a regular routine in the outdoors. It’s about letting them walk to school. It’s about walking down to post a letter. It’s about letting them get out into the world.
I know that the busy parent is looking for another item to check off their list, but it has to be more than that. It’s about getting into schools and asking them to offer more PE [physical education] in the outdoors. It’s about letting kids go out into the outdoors and experience that unpredictable environment.
It’s not about staging yet another structured activity. For many parents, however, there’s a large measure of fear around not being able to plan the experience and predict the outcomes.
7. What can our schools do to promote the connection with nature?
That’s an important point. It’s not just about what parents are doing. Any strategy to get children into nature requires a multi-pronged effort to sustain it. One walk in the woods is not going to change things.
Parents should be asking questions. What are our schools doing to enhance activity in the outdoors? What are our community recreation centres doing?
And it’s about parents appreciating what is meant by unstructured free play in the outdoors.
It’s about allowing their children to have experiences that they are intrinsically afraid to let happen, like falling and scraping your knee.
Think about how babies learn to walk. They don’t just get up one day and start walking. They crawl, then they take their first steps, and in between they fall a lot. Everything is learned as a progression, and the scraped knees are an important part of the learning along the way.
Unstructured free play refers to activities that children engage in on their own, without the intervention or planning of adults. It is child-centred and does not have formal rules or desired outcomes.
Dr. Vicki Harber’s recommended books, websites and videos
CBC Doc Zone “Hyper-Parents and Coddled Kids“