4 Research-Backed Benefits of Outdoor Play

From improvements in health to a richer, more full childhood experience, there are researched backed reasons for getting our kids outdoors.

“Wow, Mama, what kind of bug is that?” my son asks, squatting in the dirt and peering at a tiny bug that I would have never noticed.

“I’m not sure, honey, we will have to look it up later,” I say, watching the multi-legged creature try to make a quick getaway.

“Okay!” he replies, before running off to find another hill to climb.

My youngest comes toddling down the trail, a wooden stick in hand. “Hike! I hikin’, Mama!” he proclaims proudly, carefully placing his newly found walking stick with each step he takes down the tree lined path.

A moment later, a creek is spotted, and the boys quickly abandon their entomological and ambulatory pursuits in order to throw rocks into the water. They ignore my pleas to keep their feet out of the water, and then a follow-up request to at least roll up their pants, and moments later they’re covered in water, mud, and smiles.

This is childhood, I think to myself. It’s a constant pursuit of knowledge, joy, and adventure, fueled by a drive that’s only found in the youngest among us. As parents, we hope to offer our children a healthy start, a sense of duty to help others than themselves, and an opportunity to experience the simple delight of being a child. Playing outdoors gives our children an excellent opportunity to fulfill all of these needs.

Overall Importance of Outdoor Play

There are several reasons I take my children outside on a daily basis. Some of these are less noble than others, primarily that my children seem to take better naps if they’ve spent the morning running around in the sun. I also find that I have to spend less time performing the more tiresome aspects of parenting, like constantly harping, “Use your indoor voices! Don’t jump on the couch! Give your brother some space!” When we’re outside, things just seem to go a little bit more smoothly.

Outdoor play has been a fundamental part of childhood until recently, and there are grave consequences associated with this shift. One study, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, found that roughly one half of the preschool aged children surveyed did not walk or play outside with a parent once per day. Even more concerning, the study found that the girls in the study were 15% less likely than boys to have daily outdoor play.

When children do make it outdoors, other studies have shown that the time they spend out there is short, with the average child spending only four to seven minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play. By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that children should participate in at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that 2 to 5 year olds may need two or more hours per day of physical activity. Even if toddlers seem to be constantly active, they still require dedicated time for physical play. 

Pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg of the AAP, while testifying before a federal subcommittee, described the importance of outdoor play for children:

“Play in an outdoor, natural environment allows children to explore both their world and their own minds…. Nature places virtually no bounds on the imagination and engages all of the senses. For all children, this setting allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances.”

While I might personally be motivated to run my kids ragged with the hope they’ll burn off some energy, the benefits of nature play extend far beyond an earlier bedtime. Playing outdoors offers children opportunities that can’t be replicated in a classroom or even a gym – opportunities for better physical and mental health, a better world, and even a better childhood.

Physical Health Benefits 

This lack of outdoor play time has its consequences for children’s health. Numerous studies have found relationships between the time children spend outdoors, their proximity to a park or greenspace, and being of a healthy weight. One Australian study found that the older children who spent time outdoors were more likely to be physical active and were significantly less likely to be overweight. This outdoor playtime can help spark lifelong health habits, as being overweight in childhood puts a child at risk of being overweight as an adult.

The health benefits of playing outdoors aren’t limited to helping children maintain a healthy weight, however. Vitamin D, which is produced in the body after skin is exposed to sunlight, is increasingly becoming recognized as an important nutrient that helps the body absorb calcium and is essential for bone production and health. Deficiency in Vitamin D, which has also been linked to heart disease and diabetes, is common, with roughly 70 % of U.S. children not getting the amount they need, according to one study.

Even eyesight can be affected by a lack of time spent outdoors. The risk of myopia, or nearsightedness, is reduced by two-thirds for children with nearsighted parents if they spend more than 14 hours per week outside.

Mental Health Benefits

If the only benefit of playing outdoors was avoiding having to buy a new pair of glasses each year, we could debate whether or not it is worth it. But the mental health benefits of encouraging children to play outside erase any doubt to the question.

I have had my fair share of days where the constant whining, the insurmountable piles of laundry, and the boredom of the daily routine has built up inside of me until I am ready to explode and buy myself a plane ticket to Fiji, or at least drive to the nearest hotel and check myself in. On these days, I know what we need to do is get ourselves outside and into nature, our backyard, or on a walk through the neighborhood. When we finally make it out the door, I feel my stress level drop and watch the kids run around, much happier than when they were bouncing off the four walls of our living room.

It’s not just in my imagination, either; time spent in nature has been associated with better mental health for adults. Researchers found that adults who took a 90 minute walk in a natural setting were less likely to ruminate (focusing on negative parts of yourself, a behavior associated with mental illness) than those who walked in an urban setting. Other studies have shown that exercise in green environments, particularly those with water, lead to improved mood and self-esteem, two things from which most parents could benefit.

The mental health benefits extend to children, too. Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are able to concentrate better after spending time outdoors, according to numerous studies, and time spent in nature can also help to reduce stress in children. We often forget that children are not immune to the stresses of the world and require an outlet to relieve some of the anxiety and pressure they may feel. Playing outdoors helps them return to their most natural state – simply being a kid.

Conservation Benefits

But here is where things start to get really interesting. Our children are facing a world that is unlikely the one that we grew up in. While we may have heard vague rumblings about a hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, and disappearing rainforests in our childhood, the threat of climate change has become fully realized in this generation. June of 2016 was the hottest June on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was the 14th month with record breaking high temperatures in a row.

With climate change moving from a theory to a reality, the need for citizens who are concerned about the well-being of our environment and all of those who live in it is greater than ever. But instead of fostering a connection between children and the outdoors, we’ve divorced nature from childhood, putting conservation efforts in jeopardy.

There is good news, however. Children who have a high sense of connection to nature are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behavior, such as recycling, turning off lights, and saving water, according to a recent study. This connection to nature is influenced by a family’s attitude to nature and having positive experiences in nature.

The same idea holds true for adults as well. Adults who recreate in nature, whether they are bird-watching or hunting, are more likely to actively participate in conservation efforts, such as habitat preservation or donating to conservation organizations.

When I am hiking with my children, my mind will often jump down the path, ten, twenty years ahead of us. I wonder what kind of world they are going to grow up in. Will they ask me what a glacier was when we visit Glacier National Park? Will the nightly news be bombarded with one environmental calamity after another? Will my generation be able to clean up our mess in time, or will we have to trust that our children will be able to figure out better solutions than we have?

If we want to enable the next generation to become good stewards of the environment, we cannot expect it to happen organically. Instead, it will take a concentrated effort to ensure that all children are able to access nature and experience the joy of playing outdoors. For our children (and for adults as well), melting ice caps and vanishing rainforests might sound like far off threats, but they can more easily understand the importance of keeping a river they love to fish in free from pollution, or why cleaning up trash along their favorite trail is necessary to preserve the habitat. Letting children experience nature first hand gives them understanding and an investment in their local ecosystems.

On The Right to be a Child 

The best part about playing outdoors with children is that it is one of those rare parenting moments when what I believe my children need, and what they want, actually intersects.

Childhood should be a time of excitement, learning, and adventure. The look of unbridled joy on a child’s face is one that no parent can get enough of. There are many times I have seen that look in my kid’s eyes – on Christmas morning, when they watch their grandparents get off of the plane, or when we tell them that yes, tonight they can have ice cream after dinner. When we are outside that look is not a rare one. I see it bubble up when they are splashing in puddles on rainy days, running at full speed across a field, or tumbling down a hill.

The concrete benefits of outdoor play are numerous, but even if they were non-existent, our children would still deserve the chance to run outside if for no other reason than it is part of what it means to be a kid. Chasing fireflies after bedtime, making mud pies, and building forts are all essential elements of the childhood experience. Sure, these activities inspire creativity, assist gross motor development, bolster burgeoning language skills, but more importantly, they are part of a season of joy in a child’s life that is often all too short.

Our children have a right to experience all of childhood, whether it is the view from the top of a tall tree or their first skinned knee, picking wild blackberries, or even bad case of poison ivy that will twist into a tall tale they till their own children about one day. At their heart, children are wild things, and we should let them grow up where the rest of the wild things are.

Like most parents, I worry about the start I am giving my children. I fret over if the food I give my children has too many pesticides on it, or if the pacifier my child has held onto for too many years is full of chemicals yet to be discovered as harmful. I try to teach them the importance of kindness and service to others, and pray that it will stick somewhere in their subconscious. I google milestones and activities to help them develop important skills they will need to know in life.

But the truth is, one of the simplest activities I can do, and the one they enjoy the most, is to simply head out the door and into nature. Playing together outside is not only beneficial for our physical and mental health (theirs and my own), but helps to lay a foundation for a lifestyle that respects the world we live in.

The time our children spend play outdoors is rapidly diminishing, and this has ramifications not only for their own health, but for our larger communities if are our children grow up without a connection to the environment. But even more simply, we should hold dear the importance of outdoor play as a foundational part of childhood because our children have the right to be kids.

My oldest son still talks about the time he found a frog fishing with his dad last summer. I am not surprised, as most of my best childhood memories were also formed outdoors. I want my children to know the beauty of eating s’mores by a campfire, swimming in a creek, and traipsing through a forest, because, more than anything, I believe it can bring them a good dose of joy.

Getting Kids to Play Outdoors Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Them

Kids today suffer from nature-deficit disorder. They spend less time outdoors, even though contact with nature promotes health, fitness, and imagination.

Do you remember playing outside as a kid? It was a time to run around and let loose, use your imagination, and explore.

As a child growing up in the eighties, I remember walking to school, riding my bike to the swim club or just around the neighborhood to see friends, and making up all kinds of imaginative games in the woods behind my house. Well, that doesn’t happen much anymore.

Today, children suffer from nature-deficit disorder.

This term was coined by Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN). It refers to children having less experience with and connection to nature over the last couple of decades. Here are some facts:

  • Only 6 percent of American children ages 9-13 play outside unsupervised, according to Frances Moore Lappe in her book EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want.
  • In a 2004 survey of 800 American mothers, 71 percent said they played outdoors every day as children but only 26 percent of them said their kids played outdoors daily.
  • The Outdoor Foundation surveyed 40,000 people and found an overall decrease in the amount of time children participated in outdoor activities.
  • A 2005 study indicated that 71 percent of adults reported that they walked or biked to school when they were children but only about 20 percent of children did in 2005. This is very true for my family. We live five minutes from my children’s schools, yet I spend about 2 hours each week in carpool lines.

Kids and Nature

Why This Is A Problem

Children spending less time outdoors has been linked to decreased appreciation of our environment, health problems including childhood obesity and vitamin D deficiency, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of emotional illnesses like anxiety and depression.

I want to focus on this last point and how nature helps reduce stress and anxiety.  If children are no longer outside playing and enjoying themselves, then how will they naturally calm down and relax?

Well, the statistics are frightening. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it is estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety.

Additionally, the use of anti-anxiety medications is exploding. It increased by almost 50 percent for children ages 10-19 between 2001-2010, explained Scott Shannon, author of Mental Health for the Whole Child: Moving Young Clients from Disease & Disorder to Balance & Wellness.

Nature and Kids

How Nature Helps Reduce Stress

Contact with nature promotes healing.

A growing number of studies from around the world show that spending time in nature can improve mental health. Examples include recreation activities in the wilderness, community gardens, views of nature and/or gardens at hospitals, and contact with animals. Why is this the case?

  • Humans have a nature instinct known as biophilia—an innate bond we share with all creatures and plants in the natural world that we subconsciously seek.
  • Nature provides a sense of wellbeing.
  • The natural world offers solace and comfort unlike what we find in any manmade environment.
  • Spending time in nature reduces the level of human response to stress and allows us to recover from stressful situations more quickly.
  • Having contact with nature promotes healing. A breakthrough study in 2001 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that a healing garden at a children’s hospital in California had positive effects on users—about 85 percent reported feeling more relaxed, refreshed, or better able to cope after spending only 5 minutes in the garden.


How Did We Get Here?

Richard Louv quotes a fourth-grader: “I Like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electric outlets are.”

Five key changes over the last 30+ years have impacted our relationship with nature:

  1. How Society Developed. We are increasingly living in urban areas. According to the United Nations, almost 50 percent of all people in the world now live in urban areas, and this is projected to increase to 65 percent by the year 2030. Also, poorly designed outdoor spaces make it more difficult for children to play outside.
  2. Fear. Richard Louv wrote: “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature.” Since the 1980s, we live in a more fearful society hyped up by 24/7 media reporting, which was intensified after 9/11. Parents worry about many safety concerns that impact the time their children spend outside, such as traffic, crime, strangers, injury, and nature itself (e.g. skin cancer due to sun exposure, bug bites, and harmful animals.) A 1991 study of 3 generations of 9-year-olds showed that between 1970-1990, the radius around home where children were allowed to roam on their own shrunk to 1/9 of what it was in 1970. Imagine what that statistic is today!
  3. Technology. Children spend more and more time focused on screens instead of nature scenes. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, daily media use among children and teens has risen dramatically. Today, 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week!). Common Sense Media reports a huge increase in the use of mobile media by young children in the past couple of years. To learn more, check out this fantastic infographic summarizing the findings of their 2015 survey. Finally, in his book, Richard Louv sadly quotes a fourth-grader: “I Like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
  4. Time pressures. Children are living an overly structured lifestyle involving sports teams, indoor play centers, homework, extracurricular activities, etc., that prevent them from simply enjoying free play outdoors.
  5. Education trends. Unfortunately, outdoor education is not a priority, and recess time and physical education classes are being threatened in many schools.


How Can You Help?

Spend more time outside as a family. Don’t overthink this.

We are all struggling to balance a million priorities and to make the best decisions for our family. Now that you know how critical it is to our children’s wellbeing for them to spend time outside in nature, you may want to take some steps:

  • Spend more time outside as a family. Don’t overthink this. Keep your children’s outdoor time unstructured–go for a walk, visit a local park, ride bikes, have a healthy meal in your backyard, garden.
  • Plan day trips and vacations based on National Parks or other outdoor experiences.
  • Register your children for outdoor sports and summer camp.
  • Teach children to “stop and smell the roses”. In other words, be mindful of nature around you.
  • Lobby for your school to keep physical education and recess on your child’s schedule.
  • Start a nature group at your child’s school.
  • Get involved in a community garden or local environmental group.
  • Examine ways to minimize technology use in your house. Common Sense Media is a fabulous resource to explore.

There is hope.  Recently, my son and I met a friend of his for a playdate at the local library. At first the kids played video games on the computers, but once the rain stopped the boy’s mother suggested we go outside to feed the ducks with some bread that she brought. I thought, “What a wonderful idea!”

We ended up discovering some trails around the lake and really enjoyed ourselves. My son had a blast exploring in nature. Through this experience, I learned that it is very easy to be creative and add some nature experiences back into our children’s lives. Get them out from behind the screen, and go explore outdoors! (Just remember to bring your sunscreen and bug spray.)

10 Tips for Toddler Camping Like a Boss

We usually take our three-year-old camping for a weekend about half a dozen times every summer, so these tips are rooted in our personal experiences.

Our family has always been big on camping.

We have a Westfalia Camper Van which we use to tour New England in search of the ideal spots. We usually take our three-year-old for a weekend about half a dozen times every summer, so these tips are rooted in our personal experiences. Your mileage may vary.

via Fix

1 | Team up with other parents of toddlers

Are you interested in relaxing with your feet up by a campfire; an adult beverage in your hand? If so, then having to constantly entertain your bundle of joy will certainly cramp your style. One of the best ways to avoid tackling this job yourself is to go camping with another family and let the kids entertain themselves. Choose your camping partners wisely, though. It’s obviously got to be a couple you enjoy hanging out with, but it’s almost more important to consider how well your kids get along. Happy kids who aren’t fighting make for happy parents.

2 | Make S’mores sooner rather than later

S’mores are a staple for almost every family campout. Determining when to make them should be a no-brainer. It’s tempting to wait until later in the night when the mood is just right around the campfire, but you’ll be loading up your rugrat with a ton of sugar right before you want them to fall asleep in a new place. Your extended adult relaxation time by the fire just went up in smoke.  (Read: Stop Ruining S’mores, America)

3 | Leave the favorite toys at home

Your child might be begging to bring their favorite, very complicated, battery-operated toy with them on your camping trip. Bad idea. Any toy you bring camping will pretty much be completely trashed.  Transformers will end up so gritty that you’ll think they have robot arthritis. Your daughter’s favorite doll will be looking like Crackhead Barbie in no time. Bring cheap plastic toys with you and encourage your little ones to use their imaginations and play with sticks and rocks (as long as they’re not throwing them at each other).

4 | Do your dinner prep before you leave

Messing around with food prep while you’re camping is a real pain in the neck. Cooking time keeps you at the campsite when you could be out exploring the area with your brood. Ideally, prep at home as much as possible and bring everything ready to toss on the grill or in a pan. We love to make steak tips and marinate them in plastic bags. We’ll also cut up vegetables and have ’em ready to toss in a cast iron skillet. Keep it simple with burgers and dogs for the kids and you’ll be in great shape.  

5 | Bring your child’s usual blankets from home

There are some things you don’t want to mess around with when you’re looking forward to kicking your feet up by the fire. One of them is bedtime. Try not to introduce too many new variables into your child’s bedtime routine. There’s already a ton of stimulus when going to bed in a tent. Bringing some blankets and pillows from their bed at home will bring the familiar scent of their own bed into the mix even if they’re sleeping in a sleeping bag. 

6 | Prepare your child prior to your trip

Have some conversations about what to expect when you’re out on your adventure. Show them photos of the campsite – and amenities if you can – and ask them what they’d like to do while they are there. It might seem like overkill, but it can also be a great idea to spend a night in your tent with a sleeping bag so they’re used to the sights and smells that go along with it.

7 | Bring the bikes and a wagon if you can

If you can bring your bikes, it’s a great way to zip around the campground as a family. There is often little traffic and drivers are usually very aware that there are little ones around. Having a wagon is also a big win. Sometimes there is quite a walk to get to where you’re going (namely the bathroom) and a wagon will make the back-and-forth trips a little easier. Wagons also come in super handy for getting firewood and water, which always tend to be a little farther away than you’d like.

8 | Consider a campground with rad amenities

Toddlers, although incredibly imaginative, can also tend to lean on their parents for entertainment when their little minds draw a blank.  Choosing a campground with killer amenities like a big play structure and a great kid’s pool area can make your experience even better.  

9 | Include the kids with helpful chores

If you’re a parent of a toddler, you know that “I can do it by myself!” is a big part of their ever-expanding vocabulary. This tip comes from our Editor-in-Chief who wrote a piece about his love of car camping. Getting the little ones involved with chores like gathering kindling wood and filling up water jugs is a great way to play to their growing desire for independence. Tasks like these also make them feel like they’re really part of the team. 

10 | Be prepared for cuts, scrapes, and bruises

Kids will definitely get banged up while camping. They’re traipsing through the woods brushing past poison ivy, picking up ticks, and getting scratches. Bring a first aid kit that includes a children’s pain reliever, band aids, antiseptic ointment, tweezers, and calamine lotion. Also, be sure to do a thorough check for ticks each night before your kids change into their pajamas. 

How My Son Taught me to Get Outside this Winter

My son pushed me to embrace nature this winter.

This was my son’s second winter, and, because of how mild it started out, we found the transition into cold weather a little more difficult. When it came, we weren’t ready to be stuck indoors because we had grown accustomed to going on long walks every day. And since the weather was still so unpredictable, I found that the cold days came as a sad surprise every time.

We have always been nature lovers, to be sure, and we have always therefore tried to at least leave the house even on the coldest days. But my son’s love for the outdoors is something altogether more fundamental to his temperament and more key to his everyday happiness.

Since he was a tiny tiny baby, my son has been drawn outside in so many ways. Walking around outside would bring him calm during his greatest upsets, entertainment during his worst boredom, and sleep during his times of being most what we in the baby world call “overtired.”

This showed me that he saw being outside as a necessary part of his life – not to get exercise or to reach a specific destination, but to generally feel good. He was a happier baby when he spent time outside (and there’s lots of science to back him up).

Because of this aspect of my son’s personality, he taught me to view nature in this way as well. He showed me that being outside should be a part of my day because it is naturally something to which we are all drawn. Maybe the daily grind separates adults from their outdoor side, but our kids give us a chance to get back out there!

My son’s quiet encouragement to get outside gave us the opportunity to connect with other parents and kids who did the same.

My son’s quiet encouragement to get outside more often gave us the opportunity to meet other parents and their kids who did the same. That led us to become involved in a wonderful group called Hike it Baby, which encourages parents and children around the worlds to get outside and walk as often as they can.

Through my involvement with Hike it Baby, I have added a few more walks to our week and those walks have included parents and kids from my area.  Thus I have not only enjoyed many hikes in my town, but also met several other moms and built great friendships.  Hike it Baby is a fantastic organization because it takes that natural tendency for babies (and little ones of most ages) to want to get outside, and puts it into practice.

Another good resource is LocalHikes.com, which offers information on some hikes that may be near you (I say “good,” not “great,” because it doesn’t have any hikes in my totally hike-able home state, Michigan). I also found this blog post from The Wilderness Society to be quite helpful, especially when planning my own hikes for the first time.

But of course, wherever you live and however you do it, getting outside is the most important part. Our kids are drawn to the outdoors in a unique way. When we see that quality in them as a chance to experience the outdoors with them, we might just open up new doors for our parent-child friendships.

Students Perform Better When They See Nature Outside

New research shows that students perform better and recover from stress faster in a classroom with a view of green nature outside.

Students perform better on tests when they’re in a classroom with a view of nature outside.

This finding comes from new research by doctoral student Dongying Li and head of the University of Illinois Department of Landscape Architecture William C. Sullivan.

It’s the first study to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a green view and students’ performance.

“It’s a significant finding, that if you have a green view outside your window, you’ll do better on tests,” said Li.

Students’ capacity to pay attention increased 13 percent if they had a green view outside their classroom window, the study found.

The findings are being published in the April 2016 issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. The article is available for review online.

The authors hypothesized that views onto green landscapes help students recover from mental fatigue and stress. They conducted a randomized controlled experiment with 94 high school students at five high schools in three settings:

  •  a windowless classroom
  • a classroom with a view of built space
  • a classroom with a view of green space

To quote the study highlights:

  • Window views to green landscapes promote high school students’ attention restoration.
  • Window views to green landscapes speed high school students’ recover from stress.
  • Attention restoration and stress recovery are separate pathways.
  • Exposure to daylight alone did not improve student performance.

Additionally, there was no statistical difference in performance for students in the windowless room or the room with a view of built space.

Study co-author Dongying Li hypothesized that the positive showing was a result of Attention Restoration Theory.

“When someone focuses on a task, he or she must ward off other distractions, either those in the environment or the thoughts inside their head, all competing for attention. Doing so causes fatigue, and after a while, a person feels mentally drained.

When someone stops focusing, his or her attention is drawn involuntarily to certain things – a campfire, a waterfall, a baby, a puppy. Focusing on those things doesn’t require effort, and the theory suggests that doing so provides an opportunity for the brain to rest and restore its ability to focus attention again.” – Dongying Li in Science Daily

Students in the classroom with a green view didn’t just do better on attention tests; they also showed greater physiological recovery from stress vs. the students in rooms without a green view.

This appears to be more evidence for the common-sense notion that kids benefit from exposure to nature in hundreds of ways .

“A green view through a classroom window can improve students’ performance.”  ScienceDaily, 22 January 2016.
“A Green View Through a Classroom Window Can Improve Students’ Performance, Study Finds” Newswise.com


8 Science-Backed Reasons for Letting Your Kids Play Outdoors

You probably already know that outdoor play is essential for children’s health and well-being. Here are eight science-backed reasons that prove you’re right.

The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day. Only 6% of children nine to 13 play outside on their own in a typical week.  

But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that outdoor play is essential for children’s health and well-being. Here are eight science-backed reasons that prove you’re right.

1. Better vision – Multiple studies show that sunshine and the natural light of outdoors lowers the chance of nearsightedness and improves distance vision in children. Kids who spent more time outside had better distance vision than those who prefer indoor activities. A recent study from Ohio State University College of Optometry says that 14 hours a week of outdoor light is effective for better vision.

2. Better resistance to disease Multiple studies show that playing in the dirt (soil) outdoors helps kids stay healthy. Bacteria, viruses and other gross things in the soil actually help the immune system, and brain develop. Playing the dirt can also improve a child’s mood and reduce anxiety and stress.

3. Increased Vitamin D – It’s difficult to get enough of this nutrient strictly from food. 80 to 90 percent of our vitamin D actually comes from sunshine. Sensible unprotected sun exposure of 10 to 15 minutes will do it. After the first 10 – 15 minute exposure, it’s best to cover up with sunscreen.

4. Less Stress –  More than 100 research studies have shown that outdoor recreation reduces stress. This comes from a combination of factors producing positive physiological and psychological responses.

Also, in this poll, 90 percent of kids who spent time outside said being in nature and taking part in outdoor activities helped relieve stress.

 5. Better attention spans, even for kids with ADHD symptoms –  Several studies done by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign show that natural settings and green outdoor activities reduced ADHD symptoms in children. Activities outdoors specifically had greater positive impact than other settings. These positive effects are measured in children as young as age five.

A 2008 study at the University of Michigan found that memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after subjects spent an hour out in the nature.

Likewise, 78%  of educators in a large survey reported that “children who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate and perform better in the classroom.”

6. Better physical fitness – Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies. One in three American kids who are obese. Running around, climbing, walking, exploring, and getting dirty burn calories and strengthen growing bodies.

Bonus: there’s ample evidence linking physical fitness and academic achievement.

Likewise, there’s evidence that simply taking a stroll outside increases creativity.

7. Better physical coordination –  Another way to say this is  better sensory skills. Playing outside involves uneven surfaces, rocks, branches, holds and unstable surfaces like gravel, sand and mud. Playing around these elements takes balance, agility, dexterity, and depth perception.

8. Better classroom performance – Multiple studies show that kids who spend time outside (including during the school day) do better in all academic subjects.

Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.

Factoring out other variables, studies of students in California and nationwide show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. For example, one study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.


9. Spark curiosity & imagination – As kids grow, indoor environments become known, understood, and familiar. However, outside environments are dynamic and ever-changing. They are outside our control. As such, they invite the mind to wander, looking, observing.

10. Better nature literacy and local understanding – From TV, movies, books and apps, many kids know a lot about dinosaurs, pandas and sharks.  Bringing them outside lets them explore and learn about their own local ecosystem. Kids take immense, healthy pride from learning the names of the plants and animals in their own neighborhood.

8 of the Most Important Lessons Nature Teaches Kids (and Adults)

We welcome this guest post from Krissy Pozatek, LCSW, author, therapist and parent coach.  After a decade as a wilderness therapist, Krissy identified concepts and skills kids gain in the wilderness and integrated them into everyday parenting so kids can be more adaptable and resilient.  She’s the author of Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children (Wisdom Pub) and The Parallel Process: Growing Alongside Your Adolescent or Young Adult Child in Treatment (Lantern Books).  

Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin says that the best template for human maturation from birth through old age is equal parts nature and culture.

Culture is learning from family, elders, religion, teachers, and now media. Nature is learning to be in and with the limits imposed by the natural world. Indigenous cultures struck a balance  between the two as a result of living in the natural world in tribes, clans or villages. Today, however, kids learn almost 100% from culture –  family, community and mainstream culture.

This dramatic shift away from nature has reduced our ability to be adaptable and emotionally resilient.

As a wilderness therapist for many years, I observed kids resume their emotional development as a result of  outdoor learning skills and living in the natural world.

Why is nature so important for emotional maturation?

1) Not Being in Control: The inherent limits in nature foster maturation because we have to be adaptable to the challenges of the natural world. Whether it is bugs, or humidity, cold, ice, rain, snow storms, blisters, sun, wind, we have to yield to nature and accept the changing conditions. We cannot make it the way we want it, we have to just experience it and appreciate it for what it is. In fact our ancestors were resilient because they never had the option of control, for example: living in temperature controlled houses or eating the same foods all year round. These comforts of modernity come at a cost of being adaptable.

2) Struggling without Blame: When we encounter obstacles in natural settings, it does not make sense to ask someone else to fix or change it or blame them.

Challenges need to be endured, navigated and mastered. For example, if rain moves in on hiker or wind changes on a sailor, or the sun sets before camp is ready, we can’t blame nature for these things. Even if it is 3 snow-storms in a row. The forces of nature are stronger than us, so we have to let go.

3) Delayed Gratification: When kids are in nature, it is a great departure from our world of instant gratification, and this is essential for maturing.

Whether it is hiking up a hill to sled, collecting wood for a fire or waiting for the fish to bite, everything is a process. Nothing comes easily in the woods, but that is what makes all the sweet moments worth it.

4) Being in the moment: The natural world has a way of slowing us down and taking our attention outside of ourselves.

Mental health struggles or emotional disturbances correlate to a degree of self-absorption – whereas being in nature has a way of pulling our attention into the present moment and noticing life all around us. Whether it is a shriek of a crow, the rustle of leaves underfoot or a cold breeze on our face, being in nature is a full-bodied experience. This is critical for children who are so fixed to digital technology where there is a lack of sensorial-awareness of the world around us.

5) Sensorial Awareness: Being in nature increases kid’s sensorial awareness because the natural world is a full-sensory environment.

With sights, sounds, feelings on the skin, smells and sometimes tastes all around. Responding to natural sounds, like walking on crackling ice, or tasting snow on your tongue, this is soothing to our nervous systems, as opposed to man-made sounds like cell-phones or cars. This full-sensory environment naturally grabs kid’s attention, whether a child has attentional issues or not.

6) Connection with Others: One of the things most apparent that happens when in the woods with kids (or any group), is lots of connection. There is no door to shut or bedroom to escape to, there is just being together. This lends to new ways to connect, and share and open up.

Simply sitting around a camp fire at night leads to a feeling of togetherness that is hard to recreate in a home environment. Or even getting snowed in can bring a feeling of connection by everyone sharing the same experience.

7) Impermanence: Of course impermanence is the only constant in our world, but this is not as noticeable in “indoor environments.” Kids tend to think things are the way they will always be. We tend to think the world is more fixed than it really is. In nature, movement and change is constant – whether it is the weather, seasons, time of day, life is constantly shifting and each moment is alive and new. This is refreshing.

8) Processing Emotions: Emotions are fluid and transient. They simply give us information about a moment we are in. However we tend to create storylines on our heads about emotions and over-analyze them which actually keeps them stuck and static. When we are outside with the hum and movement of the natural world, we tend to be more fully in our bodies and aware of our senses, so emotions are processed in a more fluid way. In fact Richard Louv (who coined the term nature deficit disorder) cites a Cornell Study revealing that stressful events are less disturbing to kids who live in high-nature conditions.


So get outside with your child this spring! Remember he or she isn’t just benefiting from fresh air and physical exercise, but an emotional response that’s helping them grow and mature. Try to up your family’s percentage of nature influence verses culture in your child’s development.

Krissy Pozatek, LCSW, is an Author, Therapist and Parent Coach. After a decade as a wilderness therapist, Krissy has identified the concepts and skills kids gain in the wilderness and integrated them into everyday parenting so kids can be more adaptable and resilient. She is the author of Brave Parenting: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children (Wisdom Pub) and The Parallel Process: Growing Alongside Your Adolescent or Young Adult Child in Treatment (Lantern Books).

You can visit her website at Parallel-process.com or follow her on Twitter.

Winter: Sometimes It’s Just Not Worth It


Today is that sort of cold that makes you wonder if we’re really supposed to be living on the planet. I’m fairly certain I heard the mailman muttering something about “not signing up for this crap” as he dropped my very important 56th Kohl’s coupon of the week into the mailbox.

It’s only Wednesday.

It snowed over the weekend, yet there’s only one set of tracks through the snow in the backyard. They lead directly to the shed where the shovel is kept. Know why? Because I’ve finally embraced the fact that WE ARE NOT WINTER PEOPLE. Hell, I scraped snow off my car with a flip flop for the first 3 years I lived in Vermont.

I’ve tried. Lord knows I’ve tried. Her first Christmas, my daughter’s big gift was a beautiful heirloom wooden sled. “It will be great”, I said. “We’ll be outside all the time!’, I said.

Do not be fooled by the joyous looks on their faces. Only moments later it all went completely to shit and I had to make him get out and walk because he was too damn heavy and she wailed because the snowflakes had the audacity to continue to fall on her face after the novelty had worn off.
Do not be fooled by the joyous looks on their faces. Only moments later it all went completely to crap and I had to make him get out and walk because he was too damn heavy and she wailed because the snowflakes had the audacity to continue to fall on her face after the novelty had worn off.

I think in the three years we’ve had it, we’ve used it annually. As in three times. Total.

Mostly because going outside in winter is like this:

“Hey guys! Let’s go play in the snow! Doesn’t it look so beautiful out there? Come on! Get dressed!’

Bear in mind I am 100% FAKING ENTHUSIASM. Every muscle in my body is tensed with the thought of having to go out there hating everything about life the entire time.

“Ugh, do we have to?”


Over the course of the next 25 minutes we locate boots (at least one kid’s are too small), three pairs of dollar store stretchy gloves that are basically useless after October 15th, a single mitten of a pair that are warm enough but somehow last winter managed to start smelling like feet no matter how many times they were washed, and four hats (only two of which actually cover ears sufficiently). The snow pant situation is under control, thankfully.

Still in the basement digging around for things to keep myself warm, upstairs it’s apparent that either a roving band of rabid raccoons has staged a Braveheart style battle in our living room, or my nine year old is frustrated putting on some god forsaken piece of gear.

I march up to help/yell.

“Dude! Put the pants on FIRST. Boots SECOND. Seriously.”

Help me. This sucks already.

I cram the toddler into 2 pair of wooly socks, a set of long underwear and a sweater before she tells me she has to “take a dump”.


“Then go outside. We’ll meet you. I don’t control the girl’s bowels.”

Shoving him out the door, I then shuffle her into the bathroom and wiggle her out of the sweater and saying a silent “don’t let a turd roll out” prayer, slide the long underwear down.

We’re in good shape as she sits down and I wait. And wait. She sings a mash up of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” “Tomorrow” from Annie and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. She asks me to paint her toenails while she finishes. I decline.

“Come on, girl! Your brother is waiting for us. Let’s wrap this show up.”

“Ok. I’m done.”

Business taken care of, I get her dressed all the way except for the mittens. On the list of “Things I’m going to miss about having a toddler”, finding rotting bananas in the tupperware drawer and being woken up by a cranium to the face courtesy of a fitful sleeper would be higher than applying hand coverings to what are essentially whining wet noodles.

“Work with me. Do this.” I hold my hand up, four fingers extended straight and pressed together with my thumb as far away from them as physically possible.

She tries and as soon as the fleece encompasses her hand, it goes limp. Thumb nowhere near where it’s supposed to be.

“No. Try again. This.” Repeat.

“My fumb, mama?”

“Yes.Your thumb. In the hole.”

Five minutes and two dozen tries later, I’m sweating like a wildebeest in my down coat, which I’ve watched enough Survivor Man to know means CERTAIN DEATH BY HYPOTHERMIA and the fun is ONLY JUST BEGINNING.

I open the door to head out and almost slam it right into my son who is huddled in a ball on the steps like a vagabond, and clearly has been since I kicked him out.

“I want to go inside now. Please.”

“Come ON! We just got out here! Let’s build a snowman!”

My inner monologue is peppered with expletives.

I march out into the yard making fresh tracks. The toddler’s eyes have begun to water and a single tear spills out and runs down her right cheek. She stands in one spot refusing to move.

“Fine. I’ll come to you. Help me shape the snow into a ball.”

Very slowly she reaches down to scoop up some snow.


My son has ascended to the top step inching his way to the warmth of the inside when he thinks I’m not looking.

I’ve been outside all of four minutes.

Next time, instead of going outside, we’ll just build a ship in a bottle and then back over it with the car.