Between the criminalization of “free range” parenting, the media’s exaggerated “stranger danger” claims, and the relentless lure of electronic gadgets, it’s no wonder kids spend 50 percent less time outdoors than they did in the 1970s. When they’re not inside glued to a screen, our over-scheduled kids are engaged in an array of organized activities, leaving little opportunity to explore nature. Consequently, today’s generation may suffer from what child advocacy expert and author Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv and other experts have linked this lack of exposure to nature with disturbing childhood trends such as rises in obesity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and the increased use of antidepressants. So maybe it’s time to tell your kids to unplug themselves and go outside and play!
5. Playing Outdoors Boosts Independence and Self-Confidence
The great outdoors is a place of wonder, beauty and mystery, and it’s also a place where children can shout, run and do fun, messy stuff, like playing in the mud. A child who can freely explore his environment and experiment, with little or no supervision, will benefit in many ways. Unstructured free play is critical to healthy child development, according to a 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, helping kids learn how to work collaboratively, share, negotiate and make their own decisions. Children who play independently in nature are also more likely to have positive feelings about each other and their environment.
The AAP published that study in response to education policies that have led to fewer physical education activities and reduced recess time outside. According to the report, loss of play time outside may result in stress, anxiety and possibly even depression in children.
4. Outside Actitivies Help Creativity and Imagination
Louv, the author of eight books, including Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (2005, 2008), believes many parents are over-protective with their children today. In the past, kids went outside and were allowed to roam free all day. Parents didn’t worry about their whereabouts and neighbors never called the police. Children had the freedom to make their own fun. Compared to the lifestyle of today’s scheduled, closely watched, plugged-in kids, it seems like an idyllic childhood. Now, well-meaning parents face arrest for allowing their kids the same free rein, forcing them indoors. This leads to increased use of noisy, distracting toys, television and computers, which dull the imagination.
As Louv points out, there is still nature out there, even in urban settings, and the possibilities are endless for kids. They can build a fort in the woods or a dam in the creek. They can watch wildlife in the park, climb a tree, wade in a stream, make a rope swing, pretend they’re pirates, play tag, or just take a walk. Kids will come up with something given the space, time and freedom to do so. And the benefits are immense, both mentally and physically.
3. Outdoor Play May Help Alleviate Symptoms of ADHD
The CDC estimates 11 percent of children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Studies have shown these ADHD children are more likely to struggle with academics, relationships and depression. It might sound contrite to suggest that nature can alleviate these symptoms, but several high-profile studies have suggested that might be true. A study published in the September 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that, “‘Nature’ experienced in a wide variety of forms — including wilderness backpacking, gardening … restoring prairie ecosystems, and simply having trees and grass outside one’s apartment building — has been linked to superior attention, effectiveness, and effectiveness-related outcomes. … In addition, there is evidence to suggest that nature can be helpful in addressing the impulsivity/hyperactivity axis of ADHD.”
The bottom line: Children exposed to nature show improved awareness, reasoning and observational skills. And it’s not just the playing and physical aspect of going outdoors that helps. Studies have found that children who participate in natural education programs have also shown improved performance on standardized tests.
2. Kids Who Play Outside Are Less Stressed
Being in a natural setting has a calming effect. Just listening to the sounds of nature can soothe a stressed-out soul, and having some alone time to “stop and smell the roses” is liberating. The pressure to achieve, and the hurried lifestyle so prevalent in today’s society, can be a source of stress and anxiety for children, so having some time in a pleasant environment is essential. Unstructured outdoor play has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression in children. Being in nature makes people feel at peace, and with so many children on antidepressants, maybe doctors should be prescribing more time outside rather than pills.
1. Going Outside Has Obvious Physical Benefits
One in six American kids is obese, and the CDC says childhood obesity rates more than doubled from 1980 to 2010. The average American child spends more than six hours a day staring at some type of electronic screen. Are these two facts a coincidence? Absolutely not. Kids are growing older younger, putting them at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, respiratory problems, and other conditions.
Going outside and playing provides obvious health benefits. And Louv notes that children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. They’re also sick less often than those with a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle. Add it all up, and there are plenty of good reasons for your children to put down the iPad, turn off the TV and head outside.