As reported frequently by children’s wellness advocates, the last two decades have seen a shift where “childhood” has moved indoors. The average child spends much less time in structured outdoor play, and many more hours in front of an electronic screen. This shift inside has had a tremendous impact on children’s health as we see an almost doubling of childhood obesity rates in western nations. ADHD and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants are also on the rise. All of this begs the question – What do children need to enhance wellness and be happy?
The National Wildlife Federation takes an in-depth look at how to balance screen time with green time in the report, Friending Fresh Air: Connecting Kids to Nature in the Digital Age. The report speaks to the benefits of technology as a valuable tool for learning and playing, but also offers insight into balancing screen and green experiences to rear happy and healthy kids. Connecting to nature is beneficial on so many levels and acts as a buffer against stress. It allows kids and parents to recharge their own batteries which not only boosts immunity and cognition, but also contributes to healthy social development. It is important for parents to include time to unplug completely and enjoy some disconnected time to connect with nature.
In today’s world, there may be an emphasis on “being too clean”; meaning it’s possible that we are obsessed with super-surfaces and super-clean bodies. Getting “dirty” outdoors actually offers many benefits for children in terms of happiness and good health. Research shows that kids who live in an “ultra-clean” environment suffer increased risks towards allergies, asthma and other auto-immune diseases. Contact with dirt allows children to explore the wonders around them through a sensory experience of various textures in nature, and also exposes them to a diverse population of healthy bacteria, parasites and viruses – all necessary for a robust and healthy immune system. Furthermore, studies are showing that children who enjoy gardening, digging holes, or making mud-pies also enjoy better mood and a reduction in anxiety and stress.
Speaking of healthy bacteria, our bodies are designed to host friendly bacteria in our digestive tracts and on our skin to protect from unhealthy invaders which may cause infection or illness. The overuse of antibiotics which is becoming a well-recognized epidemic in our society, kills the beneficial bacteria rendering children defense-less and prone to frequent illness. It turns out that the brain and the gut interact and communicate directly via the vagus nerve which points to the influence of nutrition on the digestive system and the brain. The feeling of “butterflies in the stomach” or “upset stomach” when anxious or excited speaks to this gut-brain connection. As such, it comes as no surprise that a healthy mind starts with a healthy gut. Incorporating more healthy fats from raw nuts and seeds and oily fish, to whole organic fruits and vegetables is a great way to enhance gut health and therefore, mental health.
Healthy eating not only influences health and happiness in childhood, but goes a long way to maintaining great health into adulthood and decreasing the risk of many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune diseases. Involving children with grocery shopping and learning to read ingredient labels is a great way to encourage healthy eating, which benefits children by stabilizing energy levels, improving mental abilities and mood, maintaining a healthy weight, and even preventing the onset of depression or anxiety.
Sleep is an essential aspect of good health which can be affected by busy schedules, addiction to television and electronic games, and a lack of physical activity. Good quality sleep for children may require anywhere from 8-10 hours and is vital for healing and repair for growing bodies. Regular doses of bright natural light improve the circadian rhythm of children making it easier to sleep at night, not to mention the added benefits of natural Vitamin D from sensible exposure to sunlight. Exercise, especially outdoors, releases soothing endorphins into the bloodstream which stimulates melatonin production, a hormone necessary for good quality sleep. Sleep is also an essential element for mental health and positive mood.
In summary, allowing children more outdoor play time, unplugging periodically from electronics, regular exercise, balanced wholesome nutrition, and healthy sleep habits all contribute to healthy, happier children. Setting aside time daily to connect with kids as parents also fosters stronger connections and enjoyable social relationships which are an important part of emotional wellbeing.