SUS-WOO KIDS: A Child of Nature

Part One: Nurturing a Life in Balance

By Michael Caduto

The wonders of the natural world, like the sighting of this Pine Grosbeak feeding on a winter apple, are delights that touch the children in us all. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.

What does it mean to be healthy? The word comes from the Old English haelth, “being whole, well or sound,” and from the Old Norse helge, for “holy or sacred.” In practice, Western medicine has tended to view health as being the science of preventing and curing disease. The World Health Organization, however, defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 

Psychiatrist Norman Sartorius defines health as a state of balance or equilibrium that we establish within, as well as between ourselves and our social and physical environments. In many indigenous cultures, the concept that health is rooted in living a life in balance takes on an even deeper dimension: individual health is closely intertwined with family and community life, with cultural traditions, the natural world and the spiritual realm. True health is inclusive of body, mind and spirit.

When I was a child, my place of healing was a rocky outcrop called Billy Goat Bluff that overlooked the overgrown pasture of an old farm. There I sat for long stretches of time during periods of joy, stress or pain, gathering myself in. Away from home or school, I had the world to myself; just the wind through the trees and the occasional bird flying by. No one could see me or touch me. I could sing at the top of my voice, and no one heard. In later years, as an adolescent—no matter how unpredictable and mercurial life seemed—Billy Goat Bluff remained a touchstone to my center of gravity. Nature became the best of my best friends because she was a constant, green polestar—always there when I needed her.

We now understand clearly how nature benefits children in every way possible, from physical, emotional and psychological health to intellectual development and spirituality. From the most essential need for children to understand where their food comes from and how to prepare well-balanced meals, to the profound impacts of climate change on the lives of children around the globe, there is a clear connection between the state of nature and its impact on the nurture of children. 

One way to explore childhood health is to look at the many fascinating aspects of the relationship between children and the natural world. Research consistently shows that playing in green areas promotes creativity and critical-thinking skills. Educational programs in which children spend time engaged in extended outdoor learning experiences have been found to generate positive side effects in core subjects, including a greater ability to pay attention and achieve in reading, math and social studies. Exposure to green spaces reduces stress and improves both discipline and the ability to relate well and get along with others. Outdoor experiences even benefit eyesight and reduce the likelihood that a child will develop myopia (nearsightedness)

If all of this weren’t enough, children are happier when they get to spend time outdoors. Their lives are enriched and curiosity is piqued by the infinite variety of things to see and do among the plants and animals—the rocks, water and sky. Anyone who has watched a group of children run out of a schoolhouse door during recess and fly across the playground, squealing with delight, knows how nature and play and happiness are intertwined. Yes, there are risks when playing in the outdoors, but those risks are more than outdone by the long-term health problems that arise from spending thousands of sedentary hours indoors seated in front of a computer screen or other electronic device, including impaired brain development, obesity, cardio-vascular disease and myopia.

We are all children of nature. Our sense of place is founded on many aspects of how we relate to the world around us. As Fritz Steele expresses so well in his book The Sense of Place, “The environment is made up of a combination of physical and social features; the sense of place is an experience created by the setting combined with what a person brings to it. In other words, to some degree we create our own places, they do not exist independent of us.” Children who develop a strong relationship with their surroundings and a keen sense for how their actions affect the world around them, will tend toward living in balance with the natural world and advocating for stewardship.

This article is adapted with permission from the author’s essay, “Children of the Wired World,” from the book The Quiet Earth (Massachusetts Audubon Society).


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