Children living within a half-mile of a large park are less likely to be overweight or obese, according to a recent study.
Alternatively, children living within a quarter-mile from a convenience store in densely populated urban areas were found to have increased risk for overweight and obesity. Findings like these are part of a growing body of research exploring the link between children's environment and their physical health as well as overall well-being.
Vitamin N, while not an actual vitamin found in foods, stands for nature and has been described by Richard Louv, author and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, as essential to avoid what he calls "Nature-deficit Disorder." Again, while not a real medical diagnosis, it represents the cost of disconnection from the natural world and as Louv writes is "linked more broadly to what health care experts call the "epidemic of inactivity."
What role could the environment play in supporting children in building healthier habits such as improved eating and more physical activity? One option that goes beyond the physical aspects of the environment is the support of healthy psychological states such as curiosity. Positive emotions like the awe experienced when spending time in nature and outdoor locations create a sense of wonder that may contribute to increased willingness to explore new behaviors, according to researchers.
Food gardens are an example of natural environments that provide plentiful opportunities for children to explore and spend time outdoors while engaging in healthier habits. Time spent in gardens may support children in experiencing a sense of awe contributing to increased curiosity and willingness to trying new vegetables and fruits. As children see a seed grow into an edible plant that can be harvested with their own hands and transformed once more by the cooking process they may ultimately become more curious and adventurous eaters.
This exploration can lead to healthy behavior change for children. For example, studies have shown that gardening-based programs may be an effective strategy to help increase children's fruit and vegetable intake by teaching them how to plant, grow, harvest, and prepare fruits and vegetables. The frequency of interaction with the garden and other healthy food environments matters as regular exposure to fruit and vegetables increases consumption among children, according to the research findings.
Integrating nutrition education into gardening programs has also been found to be more effective at changing nutrition behaviors than when nutrition education is delivered alone. Lastly, some studies have proposed that in order to create more consistent changes in eating habits for children that parents should be involved. Providing resources and support for families to eat more fruits and vegetables as part of a school or community garden-based program may help increase the likelihood of children eating healthier at home.
Efforts to involve children in garden-based interventions may have long lasting benefits. Research has also shown that developing healthier eating habits earlier in life are linked with positive effects on food choices well into adulthood. For example, diets rich in fruits and vegetables have been associated with obesity and chronic disease prevention and improved overall health in adults due to high amounts of fiber and phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables.
Given the growing body of evidence, child health advocates are proposing ways to support kids in building healthy habits such as by utilizing nature and garden-based learning environments. Some nature-based charter schools are structuring their curriculum so that children spend one-third of their school day outdoors making nature an integrated part of a child's learning experience. Parents can also support and encourage children in spending time outdoors as well as creating healthy habits related to appropriate screen time at home.
All of this is telling us there is more to being outside and in nature than meets the eye and that there are a variety of ways for parents and children to get outside together to enjoy the physical and other health benefits for overall well-being.
For ideas on how to help your family get more Vitamin N, eat healthier, and live a more active lifestyle check out these resources:
Suzanne Lewis is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Human Biology from Brown University and a Masters of Science Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Utah, with a research focus in public health nutrition.