More and more children today have less and less contact with the natural world. And this is having a huge impact on their health, growth and development. This is mostly the case for children dwelling in urban areas, largely due to growing uptake of technology that pushes them to prefer TV screens and other electronic gadgets to outdoor stimuli.
Indoor activities can seem easier, safer, and even more sociable for kids who are exposed to electronic games and various TV programmes that offer a wide range of choices. Increasing parental fears about dangers of playing outside, despite evidence to the contrary, are another factor compounding the trend.
Hamin Ndazirake, a Kigali-based children sports trainer, says while some parents may not get time to take their children outdoors due to tight working schedules, this should not deprive their children the benefits of being outdoors.
He says it’s important to set aside time for outdoor activities; and in instances where parents have no time to spare, he advises that they look for another person to accompany the children.
“The way children interact with nature is less structured than most types of indoor play. There are infinite ways to interact with outdoor environments - from the backyard to the park or farm, lakes or pasture. It does not necessarily require expensive trips,” says Ndazirake.
One of the biggest advantages of outdoor activities is to get children moving.
“Most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on the couch – which may increase health risks like obesity. Your child doesn’t have to join the local soccer team or ride a bike through the park; even a walk will get her blood pumping. Not only is exercise good for children’ bodies, but rather comes with other benefits like making them more focused in their academics,” he explains.
Albertine Umurerwa, an early childhood specialist, says while some parents think such activities are expensive, it actually depends on how they have planned for them. For instance, she says it doesn’t take a lot of resources to take your children to the countryside to show them different types of domestic animals or walk them into farms for them to have ideas of how different things they see in the supermarkets or they watch on TV are produced.
“Evidence-based research shows that such exposure to nature provides different forms of stimulation. For some, nature may seem less stimulating than electronic games, but in reality, it activates more senses as one can see, hear, smell and touch when engaging in outdoor activities. As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses get dulled,” she says.
Umurerwa adds that another important benefit of exposure to nature is to teach responsibility.
“Experiencing how living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant or pull a flower out by its roots,” she adds.
Milcah Grace Aziz, the head of Blooming Buds Nursery and Primary School in Kacyiru, Kigali, says it is important to take students for educational trips because nature is important for a child’s intellectual development.
She says nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide. The phenomena that occur naturally in backyards and parks everyday make kids ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
“Most students who go on tours only do so with the excitement of seeing new places but this actually involves learning. Due to financial restraint, schools may fail to take their students for educational tours but it can be easier for families as it requires a small budget depending on the number of members,” she says.
Aziz notes that tours are the only chance to get in touch with the other world.
“From mountain visits, to game parks, forest reserves, water bodies or factories, the idea is that those who participate in such getaways leave with unreplaceable experience. They can inspire children to think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in inventive ways,” she says.
Aziz says as you interact, you may ask the child what kind of new things they have learnt and guide them to understand better when confused. By the time you reach home, she says, you can observe and see changes in different aspects of your child’s development.
Improved mental health
Research shows that spending time in a natural setting is good for mental health. For example, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences found participants who spent 90 minutes in a natural environment reported lower levels of anxiety and reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with mental illness.
The researchers noted that increased urbanisation closely correlates with increased instances of depression and other mental illness. Taking the time to regularly remove ourselves from urban settings and spending more time in nature can greatly benefit our psychological (and physical) well-being.
On the other hand, while there seems to be fewer opportunities for family members to enjoy each other’s company, parents who have been able to take family tours say that since they started there are plenty of reasons to do so again.
“Staying engaged with your family and friends can help build stronger bonds and foster security and love, as well as a feeling of belonging,” says Angel Kayibanda, a Kigali-based mother of three.
Other parents say family tours help build constructive traditions. “When parents establish family rituals such as visits to the village or tours to the park, it creates a sense of belonging and good social norms,” she says.