Nature makes children happier: How to encourage kids to spend time outside

·5 min read
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Almost half of all parents say being outside makes their children happier. (Getty Images)

The pandemic has impacted the lives of children in many ways, but one positive families will take from the past year is making time to enjoy the great outdoors, with parents believing getting out in nature has a positive impact on children's mental health. 

Almost half (47%) of parents agree that time outside makes their children happier, according to new research from the People & Nature Survey for England.

Despite this, nearly a third of parents don’t think their children have enough opportunities to experience nature and the positive benefits it has on their wellbeing, with 35% worried their child spends too much time indoors, and a concerning 10% of children only managing to spend time in a green space once every three months or less, over the last year.

Of the survey participants, 28% of those with a child living in their household said that learning about nature has become particularly important in the last year, as parents become increasingly aware of the role of nature in maintaining children’s positive mental health.

Read more: Outdoor toys and games to keep children entertained

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Being outside in nature has many benefits for children's mental health. (Getty Images)

What are the benefits of getting children involved in nature? 

After connecting with nature during outdoor activities, 79% of children reported feeling more confident in themselves, according to a separate study by The Wildlife Trust. They also showed an improvement in personal wellbeing and health over time.

Further research by the National Trust found listening to woodland sounds, such as birdsong, led to a 30% increase in feelings of relaxation.

“Connecting with nature is a wonderful way of paying attention to our five senses, to help us to ‘ground’ in the present," explains chartered clinical psychologist, Dr Jonathan Hutchins.

"This in turn can help us to reset, to reduce anxiety and also releases hormones which can alleviate distress even for a short time - essentially giving us some respite.”

Watch: Access to nature linked to improved mental health, research suggests. 

With that in mind here's some suggestions for getting kids interested in nature. 

Plant bee-friendly flowers

Every garden, regardless of size, can be both bee friendly and beautiful. "Bees have a similar taste to humans, in that they favour flowers with bountiful open blooms and long flowering seasons," explains Sean McMenemy, wildlife expert and director at Ark Wildlife.

Examples of flowers generous in pollen and nectar include: geraniums, lavender, open dahlias and globe thistle. 

McMenemy also advises planting "herbs such as marjoram, sage and chives, and flowering shrubs like buddleia, cotoneaster and apple blossom". 

He also suggests making a bee ‘nectar filling station’. "It’s simply a pot or pots filled with nectar giving flowers and a shallow dish of water (many may be surprised to know that bees need hydration too)," he explains. 

"Make sure you keep flowers blooming in the pot from March to September by changing them as they fade.”

Children will delight in seeing the buzzy bees coming and going.

Read more: Easiest ways to get children into gardening

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Encouraging children to look after the hedgehogs is a great way to get them outside. (Getty Images)

Look after the hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are a welcome sight in any garden, as they help keep control of pests like snails, slugs and other insects, but according to McMenemy in the UK they are disappearing at an alarming rate. 

"With their natural habitats being destroyed by urbanisation, our gardens are a crucial place of safety for hedgehogs, so it’s important that people do everything they can to protect them," he says. 

Get children invested in creating a safe space for the Tiggy-Winkle family.

Hedgehogs need space to find food, shelter and love. "Make a CD-sized hole in fences to give hedgehogs the room to roam," McMenemy suggests. 

"Give them a drink because water can be hard to find in summer - put out a shallow sided dish of water and keep it topped up nightly. 

"Also, supplement their diet with dog or cat food to start their evening forage with a reliable source of food. 

"Finally, add a hedgehog house or woodpile to a quiet corner, to provide sleeping quarters during long summer days."

Read more: How coronavirus measures may be affecting children's mental health

Give birdwatching a go

Many bird species are sadly in decline across the UK, with this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch revealing that 16 of the top 20 small garden bird species experienced a significant decline in the last year.

In order to elevate your chances of attracting a wide and exciting variety of birds to your garden, McMenemy suggests adding sunflower hearts to bird feed. 

“This will attract the widest diversity of birds because removing the shells means even insect eaters can access this food," he says. "You can expect to attract 30 or more bird species to your garden with this food alone."

McMenemy says the key to attracting a greater number and diversity of birds is to provide different types of food, seeds, nuts, fruit, suet and even live food such as mealworms in different locations. 

"Birds like blue and great tits like to feed at height from bird feeders," he explains. "Robins and all sorts of finches prefer feeding from a flat surface such as a bird table off the ground. 

"While blackbirds, thrushes and doves all prefer feeding at ground level." 

Attracting more unusual birds to the garden can be done with a little thought and effort. 

"For example, rubbing suet into the bark of trees can encourage birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and even treecreepers to your garden," McMenemy explains. 

"Chopping old apples in half and throwing them on the lawn or hanging them from trees can attract winter visitors such as redwings and fieldfares. 

"For the really adventurous, why not try tempting down red kites with meaty scraps?”

Watch: Duchess of Cambridge gives honey from her own bees to group of school children. 

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