The Great Outdoors

Childhood memories of climbing trees, squelching through mud, and carrying out fantastical role-playing games with neighborhood children are memories that many adults treasure from their youth. These adults may not realize that, for a large portion of today’s children, these experiences are nearing extinction.  Many parents are aware of the national lack of active play outdoors, which some have come to call “Nature Deficit Disorder”. There exists an increasing trend of sedentary lifestyles in America. Along with this, parents today often feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and hesitate to let children play outside. In addition, availability of outdoor play areas near children’s homes is decreasing while daily hours spent watching TV, and video games are as plentiful as ever.

Some reasons why playing outside is important for children’s health include:

  • The CDC recommends that children and adolescents get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. Playing outside naturally encourages physical activity.
  • Decades of research show that time spent outdoors increases children’s feelings of responsibility for the environment.
  • Children are naturally comfortable in nature; While outside kids are more likely to engage in complex symbolic play, and to explore science, math, and social concepts first-hand.
  • Outdoor play encourages children to engage in cooperative play and build social skills.
  • Time outdoors has many additional health benefits such as increased intake of Vitamin D, reduced stress, and decreased risk of childhood myopia through opportunities for distance vision use.
  • Children are safer outside than you may think! Studies show that while the perception of stranger-danger for children has increased, the actual rates of child-abduction from the home by a stranger remain quite low. Do take careful precautions to teach your children how to stay safe from strangers, but don’t let your children miss out on experiencing free outdoor play due to fear.  

If you want your children to learn to treasure the outdoors and gain all the benefits of nature-based play, here are a few things you can do to help! 

Strategies for helping children spend more time outside:

  • Find a suitable area for playing. Your home may include a backyard play area, or you may need to rely on a neighborhood park. Whatever your situation, become familiar with the outdoor areas available to you.
  • Start a project together–like planting flowers, making bird feeders, raising caterpillars, or building a playhouse outside.
  • Young children love to explore, and helping your child start a collection of something in nature is a great way to get them moving and exploring. They might collect flowers, rocks, or even bugs! Giving them tools such as a magnifying glass or bug collection kit enhance their exploration.
  • If real camping doesn’t fit your schedule, make a camp-out in the backyard! Children will be even more excited if a campfire and smores are included too!
  • Make art out of nature. Flowers, pinecones, and leaves can be used to make interesting and beautiful collages. Berries can be pressed to make a natural finger-paint. For a new twist, try using various types of plants in place of a paintbrush.
  • Take time to walk! When going somewhere in the neighborhood, consider walking there instead of driving when weather permits.
  • Ride bikes, rollerblade, ride a scooter–find new ways to move on wheels as a family.
  • Invite friends! Bringing friends along to play at the park increases safety and provides a great social experience. Consider trading-off with another parent on your street to bring the kids to the park.
  • Limit television and other electronic media time for your children. Instead of using time on an electronic device as a reward, consider rewarding them with a family bike ride or game outside.

Children will learn best by watching your example. Be a model for loving the outdoors by taking time to enjoy nature and take a break from the screen yourself.

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