Nature Babies: Why Having Young Kids in Nature Is So Important for Their Health
By Judy Klein, MD
I was looking through some old photos from my son’s early years and saw a baby covered in wet sand sitting in the gentle surf, a toddler delightfully scrunching his bare toes in the dirt walking through a redwood forest, and a young boy smiling, eyes wide while hanging upside down from a tree branch. Though he didn’t know it at the time, he was doing the work of childhood: playing freely and instinctually in the natural world. It may seem odd to use the word “work” when it comes to childhood play, but what he was doing was serious business.
By playing outside, my son was more likely to keep moving and get his heart rate up, reducing his risk of obesity and any diseases that come along with it: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, hormonal imbalances, and sleep problems, among others. He was also more likely to have a strong and healthy immune system because of his daily exposure to dirt and all the microbes that live in it.
Little did he know, that each day he played outside, he was building up all those connections between his brain and his body that would allow him to sense the world, walk confidently and use those little hands that he was just discovering. All those flowers he looked at and smelled, birdsongs he listened to, the wind that he felt on his face and sand he put in his mouth would help him interpret, organize and integrate different sensations. All that crawling, running barefoot, pushing and pulling himself up and down trees and rocks was building up strength in his arms and legs and in his core. And all those grassy hills he rolled down and the trees he hung upside from were developing vital connections in that part of his brain that controls his balance, posture and his ability to pay attention.
Though he didn’t know it, by playing freely outside in nature early in life, he was likely to become more resilient, less anxious, and more self-regulated. He would become more skilled at identifying risks and exposing himself to challenges, while learning how to minimize his chances of getting hurt even as a toddler walking barefoot across a log in a creek. Later in life, this skill would likely translate into better decision-making when it really mattered. He would also be less likely to develop problems with attention after countless hours experiencing the restorative effects of nature on that part of his brain that allows him to control his impulses, focus and listen. As it turns out, these would be some of the most important predictors of his success in life.
And all that time my son was spending amidst the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world would make him more innovative, more creative, happier and more likely to be a steward of the environment when he grows up. He’s lucky. So many of us parents let fears of really unlikely things—abduction, injury, animal encounters—keep us from letting our kids play freely outside. Thinking we’re giving our kids a head start, we put them in so many classes and activities that their free time is run by adults and their decisions, particularly around risk, are made mostly by grown-ups. And we let boredom be soothed by hours of television or video games or other digital pastimes that keep them sedentary and over-stimulated.
So let’s all consider stepping back and letting our babies, toddlers and older children engage with the natural world as their instincts tell them to do, for they are all born with a love of the natural world. Let’s show confidence in their abilities, allowing them to fall and fail in age-appropriate ways for there is no better way to help them become healthy, strong, adaptable, resilient, and, most importantly, happy citizens of Earth.
Photos by Arika Bauer.
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About Dr. Judy Klein
From a young age, I’ve been a hiker, backpacker, naturalist and lover of all things outdoors. Having grown up in Southern California, I moved up north to Stanford for college then a little further north to the University of California, San Francisco for medical school. I trained in both pediatrics and emergency medicine and I teach classes in Wilderness Medicine. I am also an avid mountain biker, backcountry skier, and backpacker. But of all the things I do, my favorite is taking kids into the outdoors to enjoy all that nature has to offer. Reconnecting children to the natural world and allowing them to reap all the benefits of being one with the earth is my passion and my mission.
Often in the Hike it Baby community, the question is asked what “adventurous” means when you are a parent. And the answer is different for all of us. For some, it’s climbing a mountain with a frame carrier fully loaded or doing a huge backpacking overnighter with a new little. For others, it’s ditching the stroller for the first time and trying a dirt trail, or just letting the kids spend leisure time climbing rocks and jumping in puddles. There are so many levels of “adventure” when you have little kids, and we wanted to share stories of families who have redefined adventure on their terms. We hope it inspires you to get out and have adventures YOUR way too.