Buying a new plate for my kids feels like a test of my morals.
There are hundreds of options on Amazon. Sustainable bamboo, for instance, which sounds lovely, but doesn’t seem likely to hold up to the tantruming toddler who does not want to try his peas. Stainless steel is a promising option, but I fear that rambunctious boys could too easily turn it into a weapon. There are also plates made out of recycled plastic milk cartons, which sound virtuous, until I start to wonder if I am feeding my child from a plate made out of toxic chemicals.
For my generation of mothers, being eco-conscious is a top commandment of parenthood. We stress about artificial dyes in our children’s Tylenol, the environmental impact of our diapers, and rub coconut oil over our children, as though it was the only protection against the boogeyman. We forego Kool-aid and Cheez Whiz in favor of kombucha and chia seeds in the name of going natural.
Our concern is two-fold – with emerging evidence of the impacts that synthetic chemicals have on our health, we feel compelled to protect our children’s growing bodies. And with a climate that is rapidly changing, parents realize the importance of protecting the air our children breathe and the water that they drink.
A quick trip through the aisles of Target reveals thousands of natural and green baby products claiming to be good for our children’s health and the health of the earth. But perhaps one of the best things we can do to truly go natural is also the simplest – take our kids outside.
Even with the “greening” of parenthood, helping children form an actual connection to nature is often overlooked. While the market for eco-friendly baby products grows, the amount of time children play outside is diminishing. In recent years, kids are spending only four to seven minutes on average in free outdoor play. A study of daycares in Cincinnati found that nearly a third of preschoolers in childcare had no outdoor playtime at all. We might cover our children’s bedrooms in cartoon pictures of frogs, butterflies, and birds, but we hardly ever give them the chance to see those creatures for themselves.
As necessary as our obsession with safe and natural baby products might be, we are missing out on one of the easiest, cheapest, and most enjoyable ways to boost our children’s well-being. Studies show that being in nature can help parents and kids get more exercise, have higher levels of vitamin D, concentrate better, and even feel happier. If I traded every minute I spent trying to get my kids to drink a kale smoothie through a stainless steel straw for a minute running around in the sunshine, I have no doubt that we would all be better off.
Letting kids run wild in the nearest forest isn’t only critical for their personal health, it’s essential for the health of our planet. A study from researchers at Cornell University found that children who participated in “wild nature activities” – camping, hiking, fishing, playing in the woods – before the age of 11 were more likely to have pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes. The researchers also found that free play in nature was much more predictive of future attitudes than organized activities like scouting or education programs.
You don’t have to wait until the kids are grown to see benefits, either. Researchers in Madrid found that children who had a high connection to nature were more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors like recycling and saving water. Perhaps the answer to finally getting your kids to turn off the light when they leave a room is first making sure they get enough time in the sunshine.
In the age of climate change, it is only natural to want to reduce our impact in order to preserve the world we are leaving for our children. But if we don’t expose our children to nature, this movement might be cut short.
Forging an emotional connection to nature should be a top priority of any parent who wishes to provide a healthy environment for their child. We might not have to worry as much if the fruit snacks they are enjoying are too full of sugar if they have the opportunity to burn it off climbing trees. We might get the chance to forget about the fact their sandals are made of non-BPA free plastic if they’ve kicked them off to go wade in a creek.
We shouldn’t ignore the environmental impact of the products we buy or the foods we feed our kids. But if we truly want to create a lasting change, we need to make sure our children are immersed in the natural world that we are trying to save for them. Kids, and parents, need to be spending more time outdoors. It’s good for them, good for us, and ultimately, good for the earth.