Balancing Screen Time for Children with Nature-Based Education

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Each generation sees its own unique set of challenges; children today have to balance the consequences of digitization. With screen time on the rise and outside interaction on the decline, it is increasingly important that the place students spend most of their waking week—school—builds the bridge between them and nature. Addiction to the digital world is impacting children’s health, causing greater rates of depression, social isolation, obesity, decreased physical development, increased myopia, learning deficits and premature thinning of the neocortex.

A recent MRI study of children 3 to 5 years old showed reduced brain matter in the area associated with language and cognitive development for children who were exposed to only one hour of screen time per day.

Studies indicate that children who spend regular and prolonged time outdoors tend to be more independent, and more able to retain information and assess situations critically and creatively.

In a 2018 presentation, Gregory Bratman of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health discussed how a supportive nature experience has deep and positive impacts on mood and emotion regulation. By contrast, studies show people experiencing urban landscapes tend to experience increases in heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, and mood disorders. With predictions that 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, human separation from the natural world will likely become even more challenging in the future.

YES! Magazine’s coverage included a story told by Megan Gessler of the Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program about a class field trip to a forest, where students discovered a metal box in an oak tree crevice, filled with coins. The students proclaimed, “pirate treasure!” and gave themselves pirate names. Then, the children were asked to collaborate on how they could cross a creek they stumbled upon, so that they could explore the opposite shore for more treasure. Gessler found these experiences provided quintessential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning opportunities. After a few days of trial and error, the students successfully constructed a raft and continued their search on the other side.

“This is what early childhood education is supposed to be,” David T. Sobel wrote for YES! Magazine. As Sobel wrote, “The conventional aspirations of literacy and math readiness, learning to get along with classmates, developing creative thinking are all happening. But there’s also critical thinking, and bonding with the natural world, while developing grit, perseverance, and resilience. And not a digital device anywhere in sight.”

Digital addiction and the challenges of screen time for youth were topics mentioned in the corporate media, yet we found no coverage of the role of nature education as a primary counter-balance.


David T. Sobel, “A Return to Nature-Based Education,”  YES! Magazine, December 13, 2019,

Angela Nelson, “How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?” MNN (Mother Nature Network) November 5, 2019,

Student Researcher: Ali Adel and Alexis Navat (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)