Back to Nature
By Betty Kuffel, MD
A walk in the woods and relaxing in nature improves health. For children, experiences in nature can also open new doors and set them dreaming. Serious health problems such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes may be the products of unmanaged stress. In the fast pace of the American lifestyle, both minds and bodies suffer. After a stressful day it is important to wind down and find peace. A recent scientific study found white blood cell levels, heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone, cortisol, all improved with a walk in the forest. Nature is healing for both children and adults.
With so many electronic gadgets available to entertain everyone these days, children and adults are less active. Children, in particular, do not experience nature as they did in the past. The author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv, links the lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends including the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.
June is here. It is time to plan summer activities. The irises are up and the song birds are back. Squirrels and chipmunks that survived the cold winter are chirping and practicing new antics to get at backyard bird feeders. Kids will be out of school soon and have energy to burn. Do you want to feel young again and full of energy? Dream up some projects for yourself and the kids: build something, dig some dirt, plan some hikes, turn off the television and stretch your imagination.
Back in the olden days, not so long ago, we had no Internet, no social media, no Game Boys, and yet, as children, we entertained ourselves with no trouble at all. My friends and I would climb trees and explore forest trails. We’d be gone for hours. Our parents thought nothing of our disappearances as long as we made it home around dinnertime, and in the evening when the 10 p.m. whistle blew, we’d better be home. I think that is why I like to hear the nightly siren in Whitefish. It reminds me of my youth in Minnesota.
If you haven’t planted a vegetable garden, you might think about the healthful aspects of eating fresh homegrown vegetables and the fun of digging in the dirt. A friend of mine organized a community garden in her back yard for a group of grade school children. They planted new and interesting veggies: turnips and kohlrabi, white and purple carrots, and lemon cucumbers, along with common edibles such as leaf lettuce.
The kids came each week to weed and water. My friend talked to them about nutrition and meal preparation. Before long, their plants grew and they harvested their crop. She invited the children into her kitchen and gave them each jobs. They prepared beautiful nutritious meals and shared the food. Boys and girls alike enjoyed the classes, ate their vegetables, and brought home recipes to share.
Gardening presents an excellent teaching opportunity to help children learn about the importance of the vegetables they need to eat to maintain a healthy diet. The American Dietetic Association found children who gardened ate more fruits and vegetables.
If you are interested in gardening but not growing vegetables, dig in the dirt and plant flowers. If you choose straw flowers, the children can enjoy watching them grow in the summer and gather them for flower arrangements that will last all year.
Tending birdfeeders and planting gardens are not only fun, they are healthy activities that burn calories. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and makes bones stronger. It lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, improves circulation, lowers cholesterol and boosts the body’s ability to use insulin. Let the kids drag out the hose and use your wheelbarrow to deliver mulch to flower beds. They can hoe the weeds, dig little trenches for planting and drop in the seeds. Sprinkling the beds with water once the seeds are in the ground is fun for them, too.
Building bird houses is instructional and fun. It provides a teaching tool to help children learn to identify different birds as you watch them feed. When you walk in the woods, point out birds and forest creatures. Walking and enjoying nature provides relaxation and health benefits.
A daily walk will also help you sleep better. Sleep is necessary for physical and emotional health. It also improves memory. Help your children let go of electronic leashes and dream.
Another summertime activity in nature that captures the interest of young and old is star gazing. Check out www.stardate.org/nightsky/meteors and you will find the dates for some good sky watching in the northern hemisphere. The night of August 12th is one of the most popular meteor showers. It is as if the sky is raining stars. The Perseids shower is named for the constellation Perseus. Picking out constellations on a starlit night is another way to broaden horizons for kids. It might open their interest to astrophysics like it did for a girl I know who will soon complete her PhD in the field.