Why you should let your child play in the mud: Benefits of Outdoor Play

Not spending time outdoors – the modern epidemic of Nature Deficit Disorder – carries risks for our children. They include: vitamin D deficiency and nearsightedness. May include: obesity (and related diseases), asthma, allergies, ADHD, and depression.

There are so many benefits to spending outdoors in nature! Most parents have seen those benefits in action – times outdoors where their child seemed calmer, more settled, and happier than they usually seem indoors. There’s plenty of research to back up our observations.

Cognitive Benefits of Outdoor Play:

  • Exploring and Investigating: There are always new things to find outside (if you slow down and look closely.) This helps keep the spark of curiosity burning in a child, and creates a passion for learning more that can carry over into school work as well.
  • Creativity and Imagination: “Studies in several nations show children’s games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and role-play, reasoning and observation.” (Guardian)
  • Symbolic play: If you hand a child a manufactured toy (like the current top seller at Toys R Us for Pre-schoolers: the Peppa Pig Playhouse), it is usually obvious to the child at first glance what the object is supposed to be and how they are supposed to play with it. If you take that child outdoors, he may soon start looking for the perfect stick – then the stick becomes: a sword, or a magic wand, or a walking staff, or a fishing pole, or whatever he needs it to be in the moment. (The Stick made Wired magazine’s list of 5 best toys of all time, and sticks are in the Toy Hall of Fame.)
  • Building: Children love to build sand castles on the beach, build dams in a stream, build fairy houses in the woods, weave daisy chains, build houses of driftwood, dig holes and more. Manipulating these loose parts builds large and small motor skills, balancing all those uneven items teaches some of the basic laws of physics in a hands-on way. They also develop persistence, remaining dedicated to a task as they fail again and again, and then get it right, only to have the waves sweep away their hard work so they need to start again.
  • Self-direction: The outdoors don’t come with instructions. There’s not a right and wrong way to play outdoors, and parents tend not to have any agenda for what “must be done”, so children are free to create their own ways to play. They continue a game for as long as it pleases them, then evolve a new game when they’re ready.
  • Control and mastery: This ability to move independently, explore, and create gives kids a huge sense of empowerment and competence, which will serve them well in other challenges.

Mood and Concentration Benefits of Outdoor Time:

Most people find spending time outdoors relaxes and calms them. To understand these benefits, it helps to understand a little about how the nervous system works. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered in response to stressors and allows us to focus on what actions we need to take right now. (A full scale response would be if someone senses a predator, and they get the adrenaline rush which guides them to choose between fight and flight and freeze.) This targeted focus on tasks is very helpful in most jobs in the modern world, but always operating in this mode also is stressful in the long run. The parasympathetic nervous system is about conserving energy while the body is at rest, so the body (and mind?) can heal itself. Rather than “fight or flight”, this is called “rest and digest” or “feed and breed.”

Cities and built environments are full of intense stimuli that capture attention dramatically – honking horns, flashing lights, traffic to navigate. These trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Outdoor environments are filled with interesting stimuli – there’s plenty to look at and explore, but it’s much less dramatic – someone walking outside can relax and gaze around them without needing tight focus on anything. This triggers the parasympathetic system. One study showed that after spending 14 minutes seated in nature, and 16 minutes walking in nature, participants had lower cortisol levels, lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than they did after spending 30 minutes in a city environment.

Spending time outside is restorative – studies show that being outdoors, exercising outdoors, and viewing nature all increase participant’s sense of vitality (physical and mental energy). And when people (adults or children) return indoors, they are better able to focus on tasks that require directed attention. Research shows:

  • Children’s classroom behavior is better if they have recess.
  • Children with ADHD concentrate better after spending just 20 minutes in nature.
  • Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.

Another benefit that parents often appreciate about outdoor time is that it allows kids to “burn off some energy.” When kids are indoors, we’re often saying “quiet voice” and “don’t make a mess” and “don’t throw that” and “would you just calm down a little!!” Outdoors they can be loud, they can be big, they have freedom, and can push boundaries and take risks. This helps them settle down, and regulate their mood and emotions better when they return inside.

Physical Benefits of Outdoor Play:

  • More ways of moving. In a dance class, gymnastics class, or soccer class, children are using specific muscle groups to accomplish specific tasks. There is certainly benefit to doing that. But there’s also benefit to moving freely during play in the outdoors and discovering all the ways their bodies can move, as they scramble under low branches, climb rocks, step carefully over brambles…
  • More ability to customize experience to ability  They can choose how high up the tree to climb, choose fatter or skinnier logs to balance on, choose the steeper or less steep parts of the hill.
  • More variability in surfaces requires kids to adapt their movement. In most playgrounds, the movements are standardized. For example, on a playground ladder, all the rungs are the same size and the same distance apart, but on a tree there’s a variety of sizes of branches and a range in the distance between them.
  • Challenges grow with a child: Modern playgrounds are much safer for younger children than older playgrounds, but modern playground design often means kids over age 8 find them limiting and boring. Nature always offers new challenges.

One occupational therapist argues that children would be better served by sessions in the woods than in O.T. clinics filled with specially designed tools. She describes the outdoors as the ultimate sensory experience. “In the clinic, we often have children go barefoot on plastic balance beams, which have been engineered to be “sensory” with little plastic bumps. If we take children outside, we could let them go barefoot on fallen trees… experiencing different textures… [and] sensations of moist versus dry, crunchy versus soft, noisy versus quiet, and changes in temperature”

Health Benefits of Outdoor Time:

  • More exercise: children who play outside are more physically active than those who play inside. Kids who make up their own play activities are more active than those who are told what to do by adults. (i.e. their free play may be better exercise than their sports classes)
  • Lower obesity rates
  • Better vision: For every hour per week a child spends outdoors while growing up, chance of myopia drops 2%
  • Even just seeing nature benefits our health: studies of hospital patients have shown decreased need for pain medications and shorter post-operative stays for those who can see nature.
  • Living near natural settings leads to: lower stress levels, lower rates of many diseases, less asthma, reduction in circulatory disease, and lower childhood obesity rates.
  • Playing in the sun provides essential Vitamin D, which protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues

Social Benefits of Outdoor Time:

  • Social interaction: Parents tend to sit back and observe more outdoors rather than get as involved as they do in indoor settings. That allows children to explore social dynamics. Many parents observe that their children seem to make friendships quickly in outdoor settings.
  • Multi-age: Outdoor settings that encourage free play (like playgrounds) often attract a wide range of ages, unlike structured recreational activities that are usually limited to kids within a one-year age span. This encourages multi-age interaction.
  • Different basis for popularity: “The social standing of children [outdoors] depends less on physical dominance, more on inventiveness and language skills.” (Guardian)
  • Concern for the Environment: You can only care about what you know about. Kyle MacDonald of Bay Area Wilderness Training says “Connecting kids to the out of doors in a way that makes them realize, ‘this is fun, this is a place I want to be’ — that’s going to create a generation of environmental stewards.”
  • In coronavirus times, it’s easier to be socially distanced outdoors, and there’s much less risk of viral transmission than in an indoor setting, which may allow us to socialize more with others.

Given all these benefits, why do modern children spend so little time outside? Parents and kids describe all sorts of barriers to outside time. Here are tips for overcoming the barriers and getting outside to play.

If you’re in the Bellevue / Kirkland / Redmond area of Washington State, be sure to check out my post on lots of great lesser-known parks on the Eastside. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you might like my Guide to Northwest Native Plants.

28 thoughts on “Why you should let your child play in the mud: Benefits of Outdoor Play

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  15. Maria

    Great love, it benefits of outdoor time baby, As a father of two and with all the techno babble that’s about the place…I really enjoy it when I see my kids thrive in an outdoor setting. their many tips baby outdoor swing with play goo.gl/rRiK3J

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  27. Evelyn Davis

    It was an engaging read! Playing in nature promotes self-esteem and fosters creativity. In addition, children’s physical and emotional well-being is gained from outdoor play. Playing outside in the sun and breathing in the fresh air, in my opinion, helps youngsters develop gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination and prevents obesity.


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