School, homework, music lessons, ballet, football training, an evening class…

All family homes are busy and active spaces, as we perform everyday life tasks in a growing family. Everything is run on a tight schedule, appointments are squeezed in and the children are busier than ever. However, a recent study shows that over organised activities can negatively affect children’s brains. That’s why many professionals are calling for a return to a more free and relaxed way of educating your child – a more outdoor and natural way.

Contrary to a well-intentioned organised lifestyle, it is much healthier to let your child develop through play outside than through intensive scheduled education. 74% of children are spending less than 60 minutes a day outside while the roaming radius of a child has reduced by almost 85% in the last 20 years. The contemporary family home is full of electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets, and, although these can be great educational resources, they do not have the same effect on the brain as the outside world. Paediatricians and neurobiologists are advising parents to fight this new tendency and get their children out into nature! Getting a break from such a high-stress schedule and from electronic devices is important not only for children and adolescents but also for you. The forest has a calming, earthy effect on us and it offers children a varied and exciting development space. There is much to discover, to see, to hear and to experience. It smells of a variety of different grasses and herbs, birdsong in the trees creates an exciting soundscape, the soft moss on the tree trunks feels like a soft velvet under your fingers and the cool water of a stream caresses tired feet.

Unstructured Play as a Development Factor

“The development and networking of the nervous system, as well as synapse formation is particularly important in the first years of a child’s life. Nature is the appropriate environment for this, as children receive sensory information that cannot be compensated at home. ” With this statement, the neuro paediatrician Markus Weissert emphasizes the importance of nature as part of a child’s development process. And he is not alone. Paediatrician and author Remo Largo also frequently mentions the importance of being close to nature. Throughout human history, children have grown up almost exclusively outdoors. From an early age, the possibility to experience several opportunities for unstructured play, in which the child can decide what to do, with whom and how, promotes positive self-esteem, autonomy, and confidence. “Those who are not allowed to play are limited in their development when it comes to creativity and the ability to concentrate. Such children are less able to forge and implement plans. Supported by the environment a healthy development of cognitive, emotional, social, creative and motor skills can be acquired» says Heidi Simoni, director of the Marie Meierhofer Institute for Children. But when is a game really valuable? According to sociologist Roger Caillois, unstructured play is defined by at least one of the following:

  •  a free activity that cannot be forced without the game losing its cheerful and attractive character
  • an activity defined within limits of time and space
  • an uncertain operation, whose sequence and result is not fixed in advance
  • an unproductive activity in which no goods or wealth are created, or whose possession constantly changes hands beyond the game
  • – a fictional activity in a second reality

Attention Training in the Forest

Even at a later stage of development, nature still has many positive effects on the human brain. For example, ADHD sufferers benefit greatly from the peace and isolation they can enjoy in the forest, far from the hectic city. ADHD means attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and sufferers usually have difficulty concentrating on one thing. Passing cars, the bell of a bicycle, voices from the street cafés, advertising screens and flashing lights and reflections. Most of us can filter out this sensory information automatically and only perceive the essentials. ADHD sufferers often are unable to filter through all of this and get overwhelmed by all of this information. Fabian Grolimund is a psychologist and learning coach who has been struggling with ADHD all his life, so he truly understands how to deal with it on a daily basis. He is also a great supporter of taking a break in the forest in his experience the benefits of spending time in nature are significant. In the forest he found the tranquillity to train his attention and start to control his perception of his surroundings. Sensory overload happens all too often to an ADHD sufferer, so it makes sense that in the peace of the forest Fabian was spared the stress and could focus more. Thus, his concentration improved and he increased his ability to fade out of other stimuli. Also, he noticed that it freed his mind up allowing him to develop more creative thoughts like daydreaming. Non-sufferers of ADHD, no matter what their age, can also experience this sensory stress; so a little peace and quiet does us all good. Treat yourself and your children to a little break, enjoy the summer in the great outdoors.


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