First of all, a disclaimer: Far be it from me to burden all you parents with yet another aspect of child-nurturing to worry about. I know we are already overwhelmed in the current parenting culture with issues and controversies that add up to make us stressed out, or hyper-vigilant, or confused as to whether we're doing the right thing (or enough of it) for our children. This is not the sort of blog to make you feel judged or discouraged. But, if you're at a point in your parenting journey where you're a little tired of the parks or playgrounds near your home and you want to do something different with your kids on one of these beautiful spring days we've been having recently, then read on.
Nature can improve your kids' mental and physical health.
Connecting with nature is good for you, says a growing body of mental and physical health research. The field of ecotherapy (nature-based exercises prescribed to remedy physical and mental ailments) is relatively new, and some of its methods may sound strange to our ears, but it's gaining a following even among mainstream medical doctors. Walking, running or cycling in a natural environment delivers more health benefits than the exact same activities done in a synthetic environment like a gym, according to a study quoted in last month's The Atlantic article "The Nature Cure: Why some doctors are writing prescriptions for time outdoors."
Nature-deficit disorder is a phrase coined by American journalist Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods (which I have not yet read, but intend to soon) to describe a range of modern problems associated with childhood, such as attention disorders, obesity, depression, and decline of creativity. In his book he "argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally 'scared children straight out of the woods and fields', while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors 'safe' regimented sports over imaginative play. . . . Causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen." Wikipedia's entry for nature-deficit disorder states, "Studies by other researchers throughout the world suggest physical activity and exposure to nature are important to good health . . . and can reduce sadness and negative emotions."
A brief history of ideas about nature, children and education
So nature is good for you--mind, body and soul--and for your kids too! But this idea is not at all new. Educators and thinkers in the mid-1800s were saying the same thing as industrialization drastically changed the landscape and affected the way people interacted with nature. Access to wilderness, forests and other natural areas started to become more limited. Henry David Thoreau extolled the virtues of nature, solitude and simplicity in his 1854 book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Charlotte Mason was a British educator active around the turn of the century whose ideas and methods have proved influential in the modern revival of classical education. She believed that nature study was a vital part of education; that meals should be outdoors whenever possible; that young children should spend 4-6 hours outdoors (with a parent) every day; and that older children (12 and up) should have at least one full afternoon per week devoted to outdoor activities. "Never be within doors when you can rightly be without," she wrote. "Children should be made early intimate with the trees, too; should pick out half a dozen trees . . . and take these to be their year-long friends."
Waldorf education, founded in 1919 and based on the writings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner (influenced by Goethe and German Romanticism), also emphasizes the importance of exposure to nature in young children's development, especially in the realm of imagination and creativity. Toys made with natural materials and limited use of technology are associated with this education model. Some Waldorf schools operate entirely outdoors, called "outdoor-immersion"; an example of this is Mother Earth School in Portland, Oregon. In recent years, the Waldorf educational model has gained a significant following in the U.S.
Forest kindergarten (Waldkindergarten in German), a concept that shares kinship with Waldorf philosophy, is also growing in popularity. Established in Germany in 1914, forest kindergartens are outdoor-immersion preschools that focus on child-directed play, exploration and learning in a natural (usually woodland) environment. There are more than 1,500 Waldkindergartens in Germany today, and the first U.S. forest kindergarten was founded in 2008. This NPR article explains how a Vermont public school teacher incorporates the principles of forest kindergarten into her teaching one day a week, and how it's made a difference (and even raised test scores!) for her students.
These educational models and concepts, although appealing and inspiring (or weird/unusual, depending on your perspective), can be difficult to put into practice because of government regulations for public schools. Many public schools in the U.S. have been forced to conform to an alarming pattern: an unfortunate emphasis on standardized test scores, teaching to the test, teacher evaluation systems based on test scores, cutting out art and music in favor of STEM, and rote memorization of academic facts in the preschool and kindergarten years. **Update: as of 3/23/16, the Indiana state government has decided to get rid of the ISTEP exam, which is good news! I'm sure there will be some sort of standardized test to replace it, but maybe this is a sign of progress.**
Instead, research shows that students who are allowed free unstructured play and access to nature in the early years develop social skills like conflict resolution, problem solving, verbal expression, and risk assessment which then aid them in academic subjects like reading and math when their minds are developmentally ready. I would love for this trend to turn around and for the U.S. to learn from successful education systems in Europe (like Finland, where young children have a 15-minute outdoor break every 45 minutes during the school day, rain or shine--and they do better academically!). But until then, here's what you as a parent can do to help cancel out the negative effects of schools pushing academics too early: take your children to a local park or nature preserve and let them explore, observe, and connect with nature.
Our favorite parks and nature preserves in Indy:
1. 100 Acres Art & Nature Park - right next to and operated by the IMA (Indianapolis Museum of Art), this park includes woodlands, wetlands, meadows, trails and a 35-acre lake. It's beautiful, and there are interesting art installations throughout the park. My kids call it the Hundred Acre Wood :). A bridge over the canal connects 100 Acres with the IMA's Oldfields-Lilly House & Gardens, and the Central Canal Towpath runs alongside it. We discovered the amazing Visitors Pavilion in the middle of the woods on a recent visit, and we were delighted by its mid-century modern design, comfortable chairs, skylights, and floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the trees. The restrooms and drinking fountain were also an important discovery.
2. Marott Park Woods Nature Preserve - 84 acres of wooded trails, Williams Creek, and a central meadow with a few picnic tables. Near 71st Street and College Avenue across from Park Tudor School. Popular with trail runners and dog owners. The east edge of the park borders the Monon Trail.
3. Holliday Park - Everyone probably already knows this 94-acre city park has one of the best playgrounds in Indy, with three large and complex playground structures, a group of swings and a rope pyramid. But the Nature Center is also worth a trip, as well as the 3.5 miles of trails through the woods to the banks of the White River.
4. Watson Road Bird Preserve - A four-acre section of wooded land with a path around the edge, in the middle of Watson-McCord, a charming historic neighborhood south of 38th Street and east of Central Avenue. I couldn't believe how much my kids loved hiking the simple, circular trail; we made two laps and they wanted to keep going.
5. Eagle Creek Park - This vast city park (5300 acres) is the only one on the list that isn't free to visit, at $5 per car. I believe there is free admission for cyclists and pedestrians, however. It boasts great hiking trails, a beach and marina, fishing areas, nature center, ornithology center, and even a zip line course.
6. Garfield Park - We love this 128-acre historic park, the oldest (and grandest) in the city, established in 1889. It is not as wooded as some others, but there are many paved trails, as well as Pleasant Run creek. The Conservatory and Sunken Gardens are also beautiful and worth a trip.
7. Ellenberger Park - This park is special to me because of its location in historic Irvington, my childhood neighborhood. It consists of 42 acres along Pleasant Run, established in 1909. When we were young, my sisters and friends and I would walk to the park and play in the creek (wearing our Salt Water Sandals), trying to catch minnows or crawdads, or stand on the bridge and throw pebbles in the water. We formed great memories of exploring nature by ourselves, with no grown-ups! The resulting sense of freedom and independence for kids is invaluable.
Urban living in Indy is not at all like being in a concrete jungle. We have a wealth of green space, wooded areas and nature parks from which we and our kids can benefit. And like my other favorite place for kids [the public library], these parks are free and accessible to everyone.