In a world of “tech neck,” social media, and constant electronic connection, it’s far too easy for kids to overlook nature’s beauty. Beyond being a welcome change of scenery from screens, ponds and outdoor play offer a multitude of other unique benefits for young minds. And now that much of our country is practicing social distancing, it’s even more important to connect with nature.
What’s the Problem?
Research from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) shows that kids are spending less and less time in the great outdoors. On average, children only spend four to seven minutes of the day in unstructured outdoor play. Compare that to the seven and half hours, on average, that they spend in front of electronic media. The lack of physical activity could put children on the fast track for chronic diseases, including obesity. In 1980, 7% of children ages 6-11 were obese. In 2010, that figure climbed to nearly 18%! The NRPA notes that this could create a troubling national trend for the future of conservation as well as health and wellness, which is a person’s first line of defense against any disease or virus.
Fortunately, there are easy ways to turn this trend around – and now is the time to take action. Having access to a water feature, and the great outdoors in general, affords great ways to get kids outside and moving!
Nature Does a Body Good
Simply being in an outdoor setting benefits developing minds and bodies, especially when contact with their friends is limited – like the world’s current pandemic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, outdoor play allows children to use all of their senses, which in turn helps them build skills such as spatial awareness and balance. It can also help improve their attention span – a subject of great concern in modern times.
Additionally, studies have shown that outdoor time:
Other benefits of spending time outdoors include:
A confidence boost. Playing outside is a lot less structured than playing indoors, giving kids their power to control their own actions and adventures.
Creativity and imagination. The great outdoors allows kids to think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in their unique and creative ways.
Responsibility. Children who are tasked with caring for a living thing, such as a plant or fish, learn what happens if it’s neglected or not cared for properly.
Unique stimulation. While nature seems less flashy and high energy than a video game, it does an amazing job of stimulating the senses. Kids can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols coined the term “blue mind” to refer to the calm, peaceful sense of happiness that is triggered by being in or near water. Being around water gives our overstimulated brains and senses a rest. Creativity thrives in this relaxed state, as the brain is able to make new and unusual connections because it is not overly distracted by visual and auditory stimulation. Our own personal experience with Autistic neighbor children has shown us that the “blue mind” is extremely beneficial for these kiddos.
Nature Is Its Own Classroom
In 2013, Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Illinois, transformed a previously unused outdoor courtyard into a Koi pond with help from Aquascape (The Pond Gnome’s teacher and mentor). Over the course of three days, members of the school’s Student Council, FFA, and Science Club worked to turn the space into a stunning pond.
During the school year, the pond is maintained by students in the school’s horticulture classes, who feed the fish, check the pond’s water level, and tend to the plants. They’ve even added enhancements to the pond area, including additional water plants and building a runoff to help direct water that was coming down from the school’s roof.
Kaneland staff credit the project for not only demonstrating commitment to the school but showing how community partnerships can provide valuable learning experiences. Kaneland’s pond was even featured on an episode of Pond Stars on the Nat Geo Wild network.
The Pond Gnome has been an integral part of creating Urban Wildlife Habitats for various schools around the Valley, including Apache Elementary School, Hidden Hills Elementary School, Desert Harbor Elementary School, Mesa Community College, Scottsdale Community College, etc.
Don’t Forget Fun
There are so many things to love about ponds and streams. There are fish to feed and frogs to find. If they move quietly, they might just discover butterflies resting gently on the plants surrounding the water. And on a hot day, there’s no better feeling than taking off your socks and wading right into the pond or stream.
Here are some ideas we love for fun in the great outdoors:
Have a treasure hunt. Make a short list of things for your children to seek outside. You could even tailor the list to include things found around your pond. How about a plant that grows in water, a shiny rock, or a fish? As they search for items around the pond, they’ll naturally take in its other cool features.
Identify plants and animals. Go online and print out pictures of the plants and animals that make their home in your pond or around your yard. Then head outside with your child and match the pictures you printed to those living things.
Photograph nature. In this instance, technology isn’t totally banned. Have your child use a camera, or even the camera on your phone, to take pictures of the pond and the nature surrounding it. Explore how lighting impacts the photographs, and have some fun playing with the different camera settings.
Create art. Claude Monet was famously inspired to paint water plants – why not your child, too? Bring art supplies outside and encourage your child to sketch or paint the pond.
Try for a “Green Hour”
The National Wildlife Federation encourages families to commit to a “green hour” every day in which children play and learn outdoors in nature. Regular positive experiences with nature also help children develop a lifelong concern for wildlife and the great outdoors, not to mention respect for living things.
Pondless waterfalls and/or streams are a perfect choice for families with very young children. They allow children to enjoy nature in and around the waterfall/stream – birds love to bathe in it and frogs will visit! – without the safety concerns of a pond. A pond can always be added to the waterfall once children are older.
During this time of pandemic concern and social distancing, be sure your kids spend time in nature. Your backyard is a great place to start!
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