We all want our children to be happy, healthy, and physically fit. As busy as we are, it’s important to find time to help children develop good habits that contribute to a lifelong focus on wellness. We may hope that feeding them nutritious foods or enrolling them in gymnastics or karate classes will be enough to accomplish these goals.
Though these activities can certainly have a positive impact on health and fitness, the reality is that one of the best gifts we can give our children is to introduce them to the great outdoors, laying the groundwork for a life-long connection to the natural world.
In “Last Child in the Woods” (Louv, 2005), the author coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon of children’s disconnection from the natural world. Louv notes that young people are going outside much less frequently than in the past due to increased access to technology and, perhaps, our own fears as parents as well.
What Are the Benefits of Playing in a Natural Environment?
By being outside and surrounded by nature, children experience an ever-changing and free-flowing environment that stimulates all the senses. Outdoor play fosters children's intellectual, emotional, social and physical development.
The natural world is a giant, open-ended learning laboratory. Children are innate scientists and love to experience the sights, scents, sounds, and textures of the outdoors. Nature provides countless opportunities for discovery, creativity, problem-solving, and STEM education.
Interacting with natural environments allows children to learn by doing and experiment with ideas. In nature, children think, question, and make hypotheses - thereby developing inquisitive minds. Here are some intellect-nurturing activities for children:
- Build with and dig in dirt.
- Watch worms wriggle through the soil.
- Gaze at clouds.
- Jump in puddles.
- Listen to birds sing.
- Smell fresh-cut grass.
- Collect seeds.
- Construct things with twigs and mud.
Being outside feels good. Children are free to explore, move about, and make noise—all delightful forms of self-expression that are often restricted indoors. Being in nature enables children to run, jump, hop, skip, climb, roll, and shout, which reduces tension, anxiety, and restlessness.
Researchers have found that outdoor play calms children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Furthermore, nature enhances a sense of peace. Many energetic children slow down to dig a hole in sand, watch a ladybug crawl, or spend focused time playing with a stick in a mud puddle.
Outdoor play, such as at a playground, often provides opportunities for children to interact with new and different playmates. In nature, children can play alone or connect with one another, learn to share, and problem solve. In the natural world, children often collaborate to make up games and rules because there are no prescribed sets of instructions. When exploring outside, school-age children may not be in close proximity to adults, which gives them the time to make up their own rules and solve their own problems without inhibition.
Even boisterous, active children slow down and learn to focus on being gentle. They might also develop empathy and reach out to console a friend who seems hurt or sad.
The fresh air of the natural world is invigorating and offers endless opportunities for physical activity, which, in turn, builds strong bodies. Exposure to sunlight means children absorb vitamin D which contributes to a strong immune system.
Outdoor play also allows a child to be more physically active than indoor play, potentially burning more calories and contributing positively to a child’s overall fitness. Some of these outdoor activities include:
- Tree climbing.
- Chasing a friend or a bird.
- Standing on one foot.
- Falling over.
- Hanging and swinging from bars.
- Jumping over or into puddles.
While young children benefit in many ways from being outside, they still need our supervision. Your child’s unstructured, outdoor play will be enhanced if you join in. As an involved parent, you can offer guidance as your child tries new activities that may seem challenging.
Children love challenging themselves—stepping from rock to rock to cross a stream, or climbing high into a tree. Providing a reasonable balance of risk and safety is our job as parents, and providing some level of challenge allows children to learn new skills.
In addition to the individual benefits gained by being connected to nature, there is a collective benefit shared by all of us. Children all over the world play outside, creating a unity of shared experiences. Our children are future stewards of the earth. In order to raise adults who are passionate about protecting the environment and preserving our planet, they must first develop a deep love for it. The only way to enable children to grow comfortable in nature is to open the door and let them out to explore the wonder and awe of the natural world.
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