To some parents, playing outside means their kids end up with scrapes, sunburns, and bug bites. While these things are certainly possible, what a lot of people may not know is how important it is for children to spend time outside.
A number of recent studies have discovered that time outdoors is essential to a child’s development. Some of the reasons are fairly straightforward, and others are less obvious, but most researchers agree that spending enough time outside is an important part of keeping kids healthy and happy.
Let’s take a look at some of the top factors that make the outdoors such a great place for kids.
As much as we might worry about sunburn, spending time in direct sunlight is necessary for the creation of vitamin D. Vitamin D matters because it’s essential to bone and immune system development, as well as the production of serotonin, which affects mood and happiness in adults and children. Additionally, time spent in the sun has been linked to a healthy sleep schedule, which we’ve talked about in a previous post.
Possibly the most obvious gain associated with being outside is being more active. While it is possible for students to exercise indoors, people, especially kids, who spend more time outside are far more likely to engage in physical activities. This can mean sports, swimming, walking, biking, or any other outdoor activity. Even for students who aren’t interested in organized sports, simply going for a walk outdoors makes a big difference in long-term development.
Playing outside gives kids the opportunity to plan, prioritize, negotiate, and problem-solve in an environment that’s fundamentally different than the highly controlled situations that they are used to, like classes, clubs, and study groups. In order to develop good executive functioning skills, it is essential that students are given the chance to be creative. Playing outside allows (or forces) children to come up with their own games and think independently to solve any problems they come across.
Another benefit of the outdoors is the opportunity for social development. Students who spend time outside, whether it’s at a public park, playing a sport, or even hiking on a trail are more likely to spend time with other students. While spending time with other students in school is part of the equation, interacting in an unstructured environment like playing in the park allows for real-world learning opportunities that don’t exist in a classroom setting.
Because of this potential for social interaction and all of the the limitless possibilities they are exposed to outdoors, students are given an opportunity to build their confidence naturally by exploring and learning on their own.
Another advantage of playing outdoors that researchers are beginning to recognize is the variation in the stimulation kids are exposed to when they’re outside. Students are exposed to extremely high levels of stimulation from an early age today, both at home and at school. Being outside may lack the intensity of stimulation that comes from electronics, but the stimulation that happens is much more varied. Besides visual and or audible stimuli, nature also provides olfactory (smell) and tactile sensations to engage kids’ minds in ways that are difficult to mimic indoors.
In fact, a study conducted by the Aarhus University in Denmark recently found that children who spend more time outdoors also tend to be happier as they get older. The study also found that more time spent outdoors led to kids being less likely to develop a number of psychiatric disorders later in life. The basic reasoning that researchers had was simple: more time outside means more options and situations, which leads to improved psychological development.
Now that we have discusses the benefits of playing outside, how on earth do you convince children to stop playing video games or watching tv and go outside? In other words, how do you create fun opportunities for outside activities?
There are lots of great resources for finding outdoor activities good for kids of all ages, but here are a few ideas for students that may help steer you in the right direction.
A great place to start is teaching kids to identify the different kinds of plants and animals they see around them. A book with pictures of the trees or flowers that grow in your area can be a reference for matching things to pictures. Aside from being fun, it’s a great way to teach children about the world around them. An added bonus is how technology can be used to reinforce these lessons and make them more engaging. Taking photos of plants, birds, and bugs and then comparing them to pictures in books can be both fun and informative.
The logical next step from there is to give them tools, like a shovel or a magnifying glass to use in their exploring. This carries the added benefit of introducing kids to using tools in an organic way, which assists with the long-term development of Executive Functioning skills.
Scavenger hunts can be another way of turning learning about nature into a fun game. Searches can be simple (i.e. finding leaves or pebbles) or complex (finding five different colored flowers). Activities like this are great because they can be adjusted based on the age of the kids playing. They also give children a sense of accomplishment when they find the item they’re looking for, which boosts confidence.
Games like these also encourage curiosity and exploration. This can lead to kids starting collections of the things they find. Every child is interested in something, and nature has many options to explore. Rocks, flowers (to be pressed), and seashells are just a few examples of things that can be collected.
Growing things can also be a great way to keep kids interested in the outdoors. For people who don’t have a yard to make a garden, planters or window boxes can provide children with a way to learn how to care for plants, as well as teach them about plants and soil and provide a lesson in delayed gratification as they wait for their plants to grow.
Regardless of the outdoor activity you choose, the most important thing is to make sure that children get enough time outside because the benefits in both short and long-term development are astounding.