Think about what your summer days looked like when you were a kid. Most likely, you were shuffled outside to go explore with neighbor kids and told to not come home until lunchtime. You probably spend countless hours digging for worms, building treehouses and breathing in fresh air.
Playing outside shaped many generations’ childhoods; something that’s decreased in recent decades. Richard Louv,
According to Louv, this change in exploring natural space can result in a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a lack of imagination or intellectual insight, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies. All because kids stopped exploring outside in nature.
Louv isn’t the only author or researcher to notice a change in today’s youth. Many educators have started pushing for more time outside and more days in nature. Here are just a few of the ways playing outdoors can benefit children.
It elevates play
Getting children outside is vitally important, but there’s a difference between having children explore on a playground with set structures and having them explore in a wild space. Per a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, getting children into a natural outdoor space offers more diverse forms of play and a better form of social skills. With an unstructured natural space, children rely less on the physical hierarchy that comes with a large play structure and more on their imaginations and certain competencies, like language skills, creativity, collaboration, and inventiveness.
Plus, with traditional playgrounds, swings are swings and a slide is a slide. In nature, there are no limits. “In a playground, each structure has a purpose,” Erin Saunders the Education Programs Director for Thorne Nature Experience, a nature-based, environmental education youth program in Boulder, Colorado tells Parentology, “but in nature, a log can be a balance beam, a place to sit and draw, a hotel for decomposers, and so much more. There’s always something to discover and learn from when we spend time in nature.”
It helps with more than just physical development
Research upon research, along with educator’s day-to-day observations, will tout the almost wondrous magic that happens to children when they get into the natural world. “Time outdoors in nature offers endless opportunities to learn and grow, and supports the development of the whole child — cognitive, physical, social and emotional, creative,” Saunders says. “Research shows us frequent experiences in nature with a caring mentor develops healthier, happier, smarter, stronger children and lays the foundation for stewardship values throughout life.”
It nourishes inherent curiosity
Children who seem to hate school may suddenly ask questions about why some bugs have six legs or about the dynamics involved in building a dam. Children who, in the classroom or on the playground, appear to be shy may run around as the leaders of an imaginative game, learning about compromise and problem-solving as they go.
It combats screen time
Children, teens, and everyone in between, are going to use digital devices. It’s inevitable, but we can do something to help combat the negative effects — like lower scores on thinking and language tests, as well as attention problems — of living in a screen-heavy, immediate-gratification world. Research also shows children with ADHD who spend time in green, outdoor spaces reported less ADHD symptoms.
It builds confidence and grit
Not only can a dose of nature help with attention challenges, it can decrease anxiety and depression, and help youth garner greater confidence, grit and appropriate risk-taking.
“Imagine setting up a design challenge where groups of teens need to engineer a set of reservoirs, dams and waterways,” Saunders says. “This stimulates their imaginations and creativity, but also requires cooperation, problem solving, and physical strength. As you watch this group, you see they’re focused, determined and are able to work through conflict.”
It creates steward of the environment
The best way to get kids to care about something? Get them loving it from the start. As kids and teens partake in low-pressure, no expectations activities outside, an inherent curiosity and love for nature will grow, as will their desire to protect it. Lead by example, and go camping, set off for a hike, or plant a garden in your backyard. Because, as it turns out, adults need nature just as much as kids do.
Why Kids Need Nature: Sources
Erin Saunders the Education Programs Director for Thorne Nature Experience
NIH: The Importance of Nature-Based Spaces in Play
Dimensions Research: Young Children, Authentic Play
Healthline: Is Screen Time Altering the Brains of Children
AAP News & Journals: Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems
NCBI: A Potential Natural Treatment for ADHD