It seems intuitively weird that we have to actually push kids to spend more time outdoors, but it’s true: according to The Nature Conservancy, in a typical week, “only 6 percent of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own, and kids 8 to 18 spend an overwhelming 53 hours a week using entertainment media.”
Why is it important for kids to experience the outdoors? Here are a few reasons:
- Exercise is essential for every kid’s health, for obvious reasons. Small children also have a TON of energy that they need to burn off by running around!
- Experiencing nature is essential to build your child’s appreciation for the environment and their desire to preserve it. According to the National Wildlife Federation, studies show that “The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11.” Our kids will be responsible for the task of preserving wild species, stopping the threat of global warming, and maintaining wild spaces in the future, and outdoor activities give them an intuitive appreciation of the beauty and importance of the natural world.
- Outdoors play nurtures creativity. Blogger Jason Garcia writes, “Because there are no labels, no pre-conceived ideas and no rules, children must create the world around them. In this type of play, children use their imagination in ways they don’t when playing inside.” Also: if you’re in the park, a field, or a forest, you don’t need to worry about making a mess!
- Outdoors play reinforces other key skills – social, cognitive, problem-solving, and more. Kids can apply ideas they learn in the classroom in the physical world, including math, science, vocabulary, and more.
In a recent NPR story, we learned about a teacher harnessing the educational power of the outdoors in what she calls “Forest Monday,” in Quechee, Vermont. Every Monday, rain or shine, cold or warm, Eliza Minnucci marches her kids into the woods by their school, has the children sit quietly for ten minutes to observe their surroundings, and then sets them loose to play exactly how they want to. Observing two boys trying to roll a log, Minnucci noted,
“”We’re supposed to study force and motion in kindergarten,” she says — and these boys just got a real-world lesson. “Outside offers so much,” she says. “It is sort of the deepest and widest environment for learning that we have.”
Minnucci expected that forest exploration would be important for kids with a ton of energy who had trouble concentrating in the classroom, but she was surprised and pleased to discover that the kids who were “good at school” were also benefiting hugely from their time in the woods.
Her effort to avoid restricting what the kids chose to do was also key: the kids were fully supervised but also allowed to make their own decisions in order to learn self-regulation skills. Minnucci noted of one little boy sitting in a stream: “It’s 33 degrees out. He’s sitting in water. And he’s going to figure out whether that becomes uncomfortable or not. I don’t need to make a rule for him. He’s going to figure that out.”
So, how do you get your kids outside more often? For starters, they’re definitely going to need your help: in a poll of 602 teens, The Nature Conservancy discovered that over 60% of kids said they didn’t have transportation to natural areas, or that there were none near their homes. So prioritizing getting out into woods, fields, and beaches is key!
Make outdoor play part of your schedule: Patrick Barkham of the Guardian writes, “It is easy for “going outdoors” to become a planned activity, like ballet lessons or football practice. Somehow, us parents need to make it a natural part of our children’s everyday lives, even if it’s only five minutes.” And while undirected play is important, there’s no end of possible activities you can plan in order to build your child’s enthusiasm for a forest romp – search the National Wildlife Federation’s site for ideas!
For families near us in New England, it’s not hard to find wild spaces: we have ample forests and beaches here in Massachusetts, and all along the East coast. Depending on where you are, the terrain can be different, but if you have a backyard, use it!
The right toys can also facilitate open-ended outdoors exploration* – I’m a big fan of the Geosafari Jr. Science Utility Vehicle, which has a built-in light-up magnifier, so kids can examine bugs, dirt, plants, and whatever else they roll by in detail. It’s also, of course, a truck – what could be better for undirected playtime?
The Smartlab Bug Playground will also provide your curious child with a lot of encouragement to explore the backyard in detail: what kind of weird little creepie-crawlies can she find to put in the playground?
Before we finish here, I wanted to make sure to address an aspect of outdoors play that a lot of the studies and articles on this subject neglect, in favor of educational benefits: playing outdoors is FUN. Look back on the best memories of your childhood, and while some of them definitely involved screens (there are too many big Star Wars fans in my life to dismiss movies and TV!), more of them no doubt involved sun-warmed afternoons playing on the swings or playing tag with your friends. Getting kids outside is ultimately about making sure they don’t miss out on the memories you treasure. So let’s get out there!
*You knew this was coming. We’re a toy store.