Generation Next

How spending time in nature fosters kids’ happiness and eco-responsibility.

For this year’s Earth Day, tell your kids to go wild! Showing children how to respect and care for the planet will encourage them to become responsible citizens. In addition, setting a good example and helping them learn about the environment are becoming increasingly important. While most people think that youth are at the forefront of environmental activism and are committed to a more sustainable future, research shows that this isn’t the case.

A recent Penn State study analyzed the trends in environmental attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of nearly 100,000 students from 1976 to 2005, and found that adolescents’ environmental concerns have generally declined since the 1990s. We must raise eco-awareness among the younger generation if we’re to meet challenges such as those posed by climate change, decreasing water quality and unsustainable agricultural practices.

Some psychologists suggest there is a way to reignite interest in environmental responsibility. It’s called the “happy path to sustainability,” and the premise is that more contact with nature stimulates empathy for the Earth. Research shows that spending time in nature fosters both environmentally responsible behaviour and individual happiness. Try these tips as a family to create empathy rather than apathy, and to find your happy path:

1. Get your kids connected to nature from an early age.
Research suggests that apathy toward the environment has increased as children have gone from outdoor play to indoor. In other words, the further we dissociate from the natural world, the less we may recognize our need for nature. Conversely, the more personal children’s experience with nature, the more environmentally concerned and active they may become. Studies show that childhood contact with nature is one of the greatest predictors of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.

2. Become mindful in nature.
As little as 20 minutes spent visiting an urban park, gardening or walking the dog can do wonders for our mental health. The key is to be mindful. That means turning off the cell phone and removing the earbuds. Pay attention to your surroundings. Hear the sound of birds. Breathe in the aroma of the flowers and trees. Note the colours.

3. Engage in green exercise.
Your Brain on Nature (Wiley, 2012) describes the value of exercise done in nature as “exercise squared.” The book discusses a study in which joggers went farther in less time and enjoyed their runs more when in a natural environment versus the treadmill. The joggers stated that they became focused on the environment around them instead of the physical exertion of the run.

Other studies offer similar results. For instance, in a 2009 study from Zurich, members of a fitness centre rated outdoor exercise settings as more restorative than indoor ones. A 2011 systematic review of studies comparing outdoor and indoor exercise concluded that overall, participants found outdoor activity more enjoyable and satisfying. And more good news: the exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to be beneficial to mental health. Even walking in a natural environment has been associated with almost immediate improvements.

There is an undeniable connection between our natural surroundings, human health and happiness, and contact with nature ultimately fosters greater concern for the environment. Celebrate Earth Day, Earth Week and Earth Month by instilling a love of nature in your kids, and enjoying the great outdoors together!

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This article is supplied by Alive Magazine — Your complete source for natural health and wellness.