Go Outside and Play! Four Reasons Why Exposure to Nature is Essential For Our Children’s Well-Being


There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that direct experiences with nature are essential for a child’s physical and emotional health. Studies have also shown that exposure to nature can increase a child’s resistance to stress and depression

Although many a sport is played in the great outdoors, for the purpose of this article when I say time outside I am not referring to organized sports. I am referring to solitary, random or unstructured time in the open air.

The health benefits are numerous. Outdoor play does not increase the chance of getting sick. Kids do not catch cold from chilly weather they catch cold from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is our nation’s number one environmental health concern; from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play has also been linked to childhood obesity. Outdoor play promotes physical endurance and strength.

The physical and social activity children enjoy in nature differs from organized sports. Time in nature is more open ended – no time restrictions apply. The children make up the rules. Consequently they learn critical group skills as they must learn to work together and to discover the value of teamwork. These are important life long community building skills.

A New York based study followed 133 people from infancy to adulthood. The study found that competency in adulthood stemmed from three major factors in the early years: 1.Rich sensory experience both in and outside 2. Freedom to explore with few restrictions 3. Parents who are available and acted as consultants when their child asked questions.

Most people in today’s world do not look to nature as a remedy for emotional hardships. We rarely if ever see an advertisement for nature therapy although we see many an ad for anti-depressants or behavior medication. Plenty of parenting books dole out advice on how to handle challenging behaviors. Rare however, is the advice manual that recommends time being spent in the natural world as one of its suggestions. While medication and behavior therapy certainly have their benefits, the need for such remedies can be intensified by a child’s disconnection from nature. While not a cure for serious depression, time spent in nature can ease everyday pressures that may lead to depression.

If parents could perceive a child’s time in nature not only as leisure time but also as an investment in our children’s health, we would be doing them a great favor.


The internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. Overuse of it however, has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.

There is an overwhelming amount of sensory input being thrust at our kids. Many children consequently develop a “know it all” wired sort of mindset. If it can’t be Googled, it does not matter. Consequently, children miss out on the infinite possibilities that exist outside of the wired world. Indeed, the serenity of the outer world can afford a sense of quiet awe – something not even the most sophisticated computer can offer.

It is easy in our society for children to become attached to “stuff”. It is important to take time to tell our children what makes us feel happy outside of the material world. Tell them why experiences such as gardening, taking a long walk and watching a sunrise make us feel better. Avoid sending the message that all things that make us happy need to come from a store.


Studies indicate that children engage in more creative forms of play in green areas over manufactured play areas. Natural environments encourage fantasy and make believe. Boys and girls also tend to play more equally and democratically in the outdoors. There is a sense of wonder which leads children to ask more questions.

Also, ideas and imaginations are not limited by what is man-made but may expand to everything outside that is naturally available. Grassy fields, trees, sticks and rocks can become virtually anything imaginable. The creative possibilities are endless.

Author Vera John-Steiner in her well-known book, “Notebooks of the Mind”, researched how creative people think by looking at the backgrounds of some of the world’s most creative musicians, painters, scientists, writers and builders both living and deceased. John-Steiner found that the inventiveness and imagination of almost all the people she studied was rooted in their early experiences of open ended play.

A natural environment is far more complex than any playing field. It offers rules and risks and utilizes all the senses, Outdoor challenge programs have shown a direct link to confidence levels long after the experience has ended.

Have you ever noticed how a child who may have difficulty concentrating, focusing or remembering in a classroom can perform these skills effortlessly during open-ended play outside? Focus comes more naturally outside. The skills developed outside can easily extend back to the home or classroom, Many studies suggest that exposure to nature also may reduce symptoms of ADHD and can improve learning abilities.


TV, while informational, can give a distorted view of the “dangers” of mother- nature. As a result children may enjoy less interaction with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only breeds isolation. Our intuitions and “gut-feelings” as well as our cooperative skills are often rooted in our interactions with friends and neighbors.

Stranger danger and fear of wild life attacks have driven many parents to prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food playgrounds. Although real risk of course does exist, the fear of stranger danger and wild life attacks have been greatly played upon by the media. Children are especially vulnerable to media reports. They see one report of an attack or abduction and assume it’s happening everywhere. Children do not thinking globally (and because of how it can be presented in the media, neither do many adults). Author Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” describes an instance of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently a number of the students had trouble enjoying the experience because they were terrified that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.

When walking outdoors or hiking with my kids, rather then telling them to “be careful,” I prefer to say “pay attention.” Pay attention encourages them to be aware with all their senses and avoids inducing irrational fear of “what’s out there.”

Children also may resist unstructured excursions outdoors because they feel it is “boring.” Again this can be related to the media’s programming which tends to focus on natural disasters. While sometimes very educational, it can also be extreme. Accordingly, unless children see a bear ripping apart a calf they feel they are not getting enough – it’s dull. Be careful to balance media exposure with positive real-life experience.

While it is important to teach our children environmental awareness, if they do not experience direct positive interaction with the outdoors there is a risk of associating anything to do with nature with fear and destruction instead of joy and wonder. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet”, global warming and environmental abuse can cause young people to view the planet as nothing more than a science experiment or a place to avoid because of all the bad things happening on it. It is essential to find the right balance between environmental awareness and positive hands on experience.


Before you start packing up the family and outdoor gear and planning a trip to The Grand Canyon or giving up hope because you have no intention of going to The Grand Canyon, keep in mind that the mysteries of a ravine at the end of your road, or a special tree in your own backyard, are equally if not more gratifying to a young child than the well-known wonders of the earth.

Parents do not need to “teach” their kids in order to inspire an appreciation of nature. Observing a simple march of ants can arouse amazement. Skipping rocks in a stream or picking up rocks to count worms after a rain is in itself an education.

Hiking is a wonderful vehicle for experiencing the natural world. However, one parent’s hike can become a child’s forced march. Be careful to present the outing rather than push it. Make it a mutual adventure. “Come outside with me” or, “Let’s go on a hike” may not sound so interesting but “Let’s find rocks to build a fort” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offers lots more possibility.

Gardening is another great way to introduce kids to what the earth can do. Often children are more likely to eat things they have grown themselves that they otherwise would not eat.

Many parents express concern when the see their children “doing nothing.” Solitary time, can actually be quite rewarding as kids can get to know themselves, their strengths and their desires on a deeper level. Avoid telling kids they should not daydream or stare out a window once in a while. How else can they truly appreciate nature’s magnificence without the occasional idleness?

For single parents there are many nature organizations and online groups that encourage single parent family participation.

Make a list with your child of what you really like to do. The answers may surprise you. Many kids will say that it is time outside over organized sports that they truly love. Re-evaluate your schedule to accommodate what you really like to do.

Get input from schools, nature organizations, and friends. Above all, get outside!

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