Why should your kid play outdoors?
By Noémie von Kaenel, OTS and Bearfoot OT
Five hours of Zoom.
Back to back meetings.
Barely time for a snack or to go to the bathroom.
Haven’t been outside all day (looks nice out there, eh?).
Haven’t moved from the chair since this morning.
Brain overwhelm (what did they say again?).
Screen time overload.
If you’re a parent whose work-life now exists in the space between Zoom meetings and staring at your screen, you know EXACTLY how this feels. And you might be getting used to it.
But your kid? Your kid isn’t supposed to be good at this.
And yet the scene above is exactly what most kids’ school days have looked like for the past year.
More screens, less green
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to lead a less active, mostly indoor life. There are so many other factors too: keeping up with constantly changing states of the world, learning new technology, limitations to seeing friends and family, and being too busy to get exercise. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened problematic trends including:
Children now spend between five to seven hours sitting still in front of a screen, when older generations at their age, would be running around in the woods⁷
Elementary schools have reduced their recess time down to 15-30 minutes to cover more school work, which is not enough outdoor time to enjoy the benefits³ ⁷
Zoom breaks aren't long enough to allow for longer chunks of off-screen time, enough time to take a breath of fresh air or run around outside.
How are children supposed to make connections with others and their environment when their school day consists of looking at little boxes on the screen?
Or when recess is an indoor activity following along to a Go Noodle video?
That’s not gonna make the cut.
Limited opportunities for outdoor time means fewer chances for being in nature - something that has been proven by countless studies to have incredible benefits for kids.
Recognizing the benefits of nature for kids
The U.S. is going through a much-needed culture shift to embrace the outdoors and recognize its clear benefits¹³. Many countries have been doing so for decades through the forest or nature-based schools, recess outdoors, field trips to parks, skiing, camping, and more.
Simply stepping outdoors, breathing in clean air, and absorbing the sun’s vitamin D not only improves our overall sense of wellbeing but also increases our attention and reduces depression, anxiety, and stress¹ ³ ⁴. Being in nature helps children’s development, is educational, and can help promote life skills and social skills.
If you’re a skimmer, click here for the infographic. If you want the nitty-gritty details, read on!
How does nature benefit kids?
Nature helps children develop motor development skills, social development skills including playing skills, and personal development including cognitive skills. Let’s dive!
Motor Development Skills
Think about the last time you saw your kid at the playground or on a hike.
Did your child jump with excitement or run around?
That’s working on motor coordination of both sides of their body, getting their heart rate up, getting vestibular and proprioceptive input to regulate their bodies.
Did your child climb up and down the slide or a tree?
That’s working on balance, coordinating their body, strength, safety, and judgment of risks, and problem-solving how they can navigate the structure.
Did your child notice a bug on the ground, collect any natural materials, or play in a garden?
That works on their visual perception, their attention, fine motor skills like hand grasps, in-hand manipulation, and strength.
Interacting with the outdoors allows children to play with materials in their natural environment and further their development and skills. Research says nature benefits children’s motor development by:
Lowering children’s risk of obesity and BMI through exercise
Lowering screen time
Interacting with soil and moving outdoors increases bone development and immunity
Increasing gross motor coordination, body awareness, and balancing by being on a log or climbing trees
Increasing fine motor skills by building structures with sticks and rocks or skipping rocks into a river or collecting sea glass from the beach
(Andrew, Yusof, & Kasim, 2020; Bento, & Dias, 2017; Dadvand, et al., 2014; Figueroa, 2020)
The physical challenges that are everywhere in nature offer children an opportunity to get to know their body positioning test their environment and assess risks like how to safely jump off a tree branch or rock to land with both feet onto the ground. These are important to develop core stability, strength, walking, motor coordination, and fine motor skills for school activities and eventually work.
Social Development Skills
Interacting with the outdoors also allows for social skill development. Reflect on your recent outside time with your child.
Did your child ask you questions about the environment?
They are curious! They are learning about the earth’s ecosystem.
Did your child pick up a stick and made it a wand? Or a boat?
They are associating materials with functions and playing in an imaginative way by assigning a role to the resources they have.
Did your child ask for you to play?
They want to be social and work together for a common goal (play) and (hopefully) take turns with you.
The research on social skills development in nature shows that:
Children develop a sense of responsibility and care to sustain the environment.
Children who play outdoors are more likely to travel abroad for nature-based tourism as adults.
Playing outdoors and taking calculated risks and experiments lead to entrepreneurial skills and solution-focused and perseverance to reaching goals as adults.
(Bento, & Dias, 2017; Dopko, Capaldi, & Zelenski, 2019; Bal, & Kaya, 2020; Figueroa, 2020; Hosaka, Numata, & Sugimoto, 2018)
Personal Development Skills
Nature also benefits kids’ development of self-care skills, emotional health, and attention. Studies have also shown that children who spend time outdoors have improved:
AND are more adaptable to their environment!
(Goodwin, & Corner, 2020; Niblett, Hiscott, Power, & McFarlane, 2020; Bento, & Dias, 2017; Tillmann, Tobin, Avison, & Gilliland, 2018)
Teachers in outdoor classrooms reported students having:
Fewer disruptive behaviors
Fewer students off task
Increased focus on tasks
Overall better sense of wellbeing when outdoors
(Bal, & Kaya, 2020; Bento, & Dias, 2017; Dilek, & Atasoy, 2020; Largo-Wight, et al., 2018; Tillmann, Tobin, Avison, & Gilliland, 2018)
These benefits all feed into taking care of our mental health and getting to know what we need to feel grounded and calm.
Self-care for kids can look like exploring and playing in and with new environments and people! Being outdoors allows for trial and error in the natural world and helps us learn problem-solving skills and then confidence in the skill we learned. Kids even learn how to dress appropriately and can get their wiggles out so that when they come home they are calmer and more focused on sit-down tasks like eating dinner, doing homework, or chores.
The great outdoors is the best natural playground for children, let them explore!
So what can you do right now?
5 things that you can do to get your kid outside
Do you like exploring?
Try a scavenger hunt in the backyard, bring back a jar full of nature things to observe and play with like bark, worms, sticks, any bugs, leaves
Is it raining?
Jump in puddles when it rains
Want to race?
Create an obstacle course with only natural materials (logs, sticks, trees) where you have to go over something, under something, across something. Maybe find someone to race you to it?
Want to calm your body or on a walk with a grown-up?
Play I Spy! (and think of what you hear, see, taste, feel and smell)
Help a grown-up with their garden
You can play with the dirt, see what animals are in there? (maybe even taste it!)
Bonus - Roll down a hill or climb a tree!
We do too! See our references below.
1. Andrew, V. D., Yusof, M. J. M., & Kasim, J. A. (2020). Relationship between physical activity in urban green space and dietary patterns among obese children in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, 28(1), 633-645.
2. Bal, E., & Kaya, G. (2020). Investigation of forest school concept by forest school teachers' viewpoints. International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education, 10(2), 167-180.
3. Bento, G., & Dias, G. (2017). The importance of outdoor play for young children's healthy development. Porto biomedical journal, 2(5), 157–160. Download for free here
4. Dadvand, P., Villanueva, C. M., Font-Ribera, L., Martinez, D., Basagaña, X., Belmonte, J., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2014). Risks and benefits of green spaces for children: A cross-sectional study of associations with sedentary behavior, obesity, asthma, and allergy. Environmental Health Perspectives, 122(12), 1329-1335. doi:10.1289/ehp.1308038
5. Dilek, Ö, & Atasoy, V. (2020). Forest school applications in pre-school period: A case study. International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education, 10(2), 195-215.
6. Dopko, R. L., Capaldi, C. A., & Zelenski, J. M. (2019). The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 63, 134-138. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2019.05.002
7. Figueroa, L.P. (2020, August). Nature-Based Occupational therapy for Children with Developmental Disabilities. SIS Quarterly Practice Connections: A supplement to OT Practice. American Occupational Therapy Association. Vol 5, Issue 3. P.2-4.
8. Goodwin, B., & Corner, T. (2020). Outside and inspired: Will the pandemic nudge us to explore the value of outdoor education? Educational Leadership, 78(3), 74-75.
9. Hosaka, T., Numata, S., & Sugimoto, K. (2018). Research note: Relationship between childhood nature play and adulthood participation in nature-based recreation among urban residents in the Tokyo area. Landscape & Urban Planning, 180, 1-4. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.08.002
10. Krueger, A. (2016). GROWING KIDS' green thumbs. Alive: Canada's Natural Health & Wellness Magazine, (402), 74-78.
11. Largo-Wight, E., Guardino, C., Wludyka, P. S., Hall, K. W., Wight, J. T., & Merten, J. W. (2018). Nature contact at school: The impact of an outdoor classroom on children’s well-being. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 28(6), 653-666. doi:10.1080/09603123.2018.1502415
12. Niblett, B., Hiscott, K., Power, M., & McFarlane, H. (2020). Partnering for outdoor play: A case study of forest and nature school programming in the context of licensed child care in Ottawa, Ontario. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 23(2), 67-85.
13. Stevens, Z., Grimwood, B. S. R., Babcock, S., & Meissner, C. (2020). Shifting culture towards endorsement and advocacy of outdoor play and learning: A collaborative case study with KidActive. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 23(2), 106-124.
14. Razani N, Radhakrishna R, Chan C. (2020, May). Public Lands Are Essential to Public Health During a Pandemic. Pediatrics Perspectives. 146(2):e20201271
15. Tillmann, S., Tobin, D., Avison, W., & Gilliland, J. (2018). Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 72(10), 958–966. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2018-210436