Tag Archives: outdoors

Connecting to Nature from Home

TL; DR: There are so many physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature. But parents may face barriers to getting outside. Perceived barriers could be: the parents’ lack of knowledge / experience with nature, minimal access to wild lands, and health/disability issues which limit ability to explore outdoors. This post will highlight super simple ways to connect more to nature by just looking out your window more, by bringing a little of nature into your home, by spending time in your own yard or in any outdoor space, or by using webcams and educational videos to learn more about nature.

Looking out the window:

Studies of hospital patients have shown decreased need for pain medications and shorter post-operative stays for those who can see nature outside the hospital window. Here are some things you can do without even going out:

  • Weather Checks: Notice what the weather is, even if you’re not going out. Teach about weather. In my lesson plan about Weather Science, you’ll find ideas about teaching weather vocabulary, drawing the weather, creating weather charts, observing and identifying clouds.
  • Notice seasonal changes: The view outside your window is always changing. Maybe the flowers are blooming, or the leaves are changing colors. With your child, take a picture from the same view once every week, and then compare them side by side to notice what has changed.
  • Gaze at clouds – what shapes do you see?
  • Keep a tally: Decide what you’ll count: birds? people passing by? dogs? cars? Whatever it is, looking outdoors and counting means lots of time looking outdoors!
  • Tell stories: when a car passes by, imagine who is in it, and what they might be doing.

Bringing Nature In

Try any of these easy activities:

  • Dissect vegetables and fruits. When you’re prepping food, try “dissecting” it with your child – carefully cutting it apart and examining the parts. You can use books or the internet to learn more about plant parts. Save your seeds – apple seeds, cherry pits, or whatever.
  • Sprout seeds Use seeds you saved, or dry beans. Fold a paper towel, wet it, put it in a ziplock baggie. Add a seed. Seal the baggie and tape it to a window with the seed facing in where you can see it. Wait a few days.
  • Once you’ve sprouted your seeds, if you have access to dirt or potting soil, you can plant them. You can use any container you have.  For example, if you have a margarine or yogurt tub, poke a couple holes in the bottom for drainage, set it on its lid before putting it in the window. Or you could make a terrarium from a 2 liter bottle.
  • Propagate a succulent plant. If you have a succulent, you can gently twist off a leaf or two, let it dry for a day or two, set the leaf on top of some soil. Every day or two, spritz some water on the soil to keep it moist. After a few weeks (this is a slow process!) they will have roots. Then plant those roots in the soil. Water these new plants once a week, and they will grow. It can take months for that leaf to become a little plant – this is a slow process, but I love my little baby succulents!
  • Plant potatoes in a container. (Just do a search for that, and you’ll find all the details!) Grow sweet potato vines.  Grow celery from the base of a bunch of celery, or lettuce from the core.
  • If you have celery, cabbage, or white flowers, you can teach about the science of wicking by putting them in colored water, and over 24 hours or so, they’ll pull the color up into them.
  • Vegetable prints. You can cut the base off a stalk of celery, or the base off of a bell pepper, or slice mushrooms in half, then use those to print paint in fun designs. Lots of plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles have a sort of flower shape on the bottom that if you dip it in paint you can print flower gardens. (see pictures)
  • Consider a pet. But please don’t buy any pet without serious research… I firmly believe that if I bring an animal into my home, I’m making a commitment to caring for that pet for its natural lifetime. A manageable starting place for a family with young children is a betta fish, perhaps with a nerite snail to manage the algae.

Your Backyard / Sidewalk

Getting outside helps connect you to nature, but it can also let your kid MOVE more and get out some energy. It’s also a great opportunity to let them use their “outside voice”! Don’t let the weather stop you from going out. Being outside in the rain or cold won’t make kids sick! Just have them put on appropriate clothes for the weather.

  • Work on a garden together. Or even on an outdoor project like building raised beds, building a brick retaining wall or a cobblestone path. “Heavy work” is great for children, and helps them burn up a lot of energy as well as gain pride from building something real.
  • Make a bird feeder, hang it up, and then keep a record of what kinds of birds you see. Learn about those birds online. Here is a guide to bird calls for birds commonly found in the Pacific NW.
  • Go on a bug hunt.
  • Nature crafts: gather grass, flowers and more to spell out your name, or to make bookmarks (take a piece of contact paper or clear packing tape, lay your flowers on it, then put another piece of packing tape on top to seal it. Trim the edges to a nice shape). Make a wind chime, from old keys or a plastic cup and beads.
  • Don’t feel like you have to entertain them or educate them continuously outside. It’s also fine to let them discover ways to self entertain. Put out toys or equipment that are fine for outdoors: jumpropes, balls, toy shovels if there’s somewhere they can dig, a container of water and scoops and funnels, sidewalk chalk, etc.

Walking in your Neighborhood

While I love going on long hikes and discovering new wilderness areas, there are also a lot of health benefits to walking anywhere – including just walking around your neighborhood every day. If you’re walking the same loop every day, it might start to feel repetitive… here’s some ways you can keep it interesting:

  • Notice nature’s changes: Nature provides an always-changing experience…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Have new trees blossomed? Have trees dropped leaves or seeds? Are there birds? squirrels? bugs? What did yesterday’s wind blow around?
  • Practice traffic rules: practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and talk about what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. Teach about turn signals, stop signs, watching for driveways and more.
  • Learn navigation: teach addresses and street names. Bring a paper map and teach how to use it. Use a mapping app on your phone and teach how to use it. For little ones, practice turning left and right on command. Draw a map of the neighborhood.
  • Play red light, green light.
  • Try “nature shopping“, where the child gathers a collection of natural items, like rocks or pinecones or leaves.
  • Collecting photos: on every walk, you can take photos of things you want to remember and make a little photo album of your favorite finds.
  • Scavenger Hunts: prepare a list of things you would expect to be able to see or hear or do on your outing. Bring stickers along and as you’re out on an adventure, any time you find one of the items on the list, your child can put a sticker on it. Then when the scavenger hunt is complete, you can have a snack when you get home as a reward. Ideas for scavenger hunts:
    • Things to listen for: crows, bird calls, running water, wind in the leaves, people’s voices in the distance, dogs barking
    • Things to look for: pinecones, mushrooms, ferns, moss, spider web, bugs
    • Things to do: go up or down stairs, cross a crosswalk, wait for a light… if you know your neighborhood, it will be easy for you to make a list they can successfully complete
    • Go on a bug scavenger hunt
    • Go on a numbers scavenger hunt – how long does it take you to find all the numbers 1 – 10?
    • Go on a letters scavenger hunt: can you find all the letters A – Z on your walk? Check street signs, license plates, etc.
    • For more ideas, just search “backyard scavenger hunt.”
    • For older kids: try Pokemon Go,  geocaching or letterboxing.

Resources for Hands-On Activities

The Wild Network is dedicated to easy ideas for getting kids outdoors and connected to nature. They have lots of wild time ideas at https://thewildnetwork.com/wild-time-ideas/ and more inspiration – https://thewildnetwork.com/inspiration/

The National Wildlife Federation encourages parents to ensure that children get one “green hour” outside every day. They have lots of activity ideas at: https://www.thegreenhour.org/.

Nature Mentoring has 22 ideas for Sharing Nature with Beginners: https://nature-mentor.com/nature-connection-activities/

Virtual Nature

Lots of zoos have webcams that let you observe animals in action. Check out: https://zoocamerasaroundtheworld.com/. You’ll find the Panda Cam from Atlanta, the penguins from Woodland Park in Seattle, otters from Chattanooga, and many more. The San Diego zoo has many live cams, plus lots of videos. The National Zoo has four. The trick with live webcams is that sometimes you see nothing… At the exact moment I type this, if I try to look at the naked mole rats in DC, all I see is an enclosure with a spinach leaf and a piece of corn on the cob. So, plan on flipping between several webcams till you find one with some good action going on. Here’s a  Virtual Field Trip Lesson Plan you could use to enhance your viewing.

There are also aquariums with webcams: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, and the Seattle Aquarium has a virtual field trip.

There are also lots of great nature videos on National Geographic Kids, Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation, and National Geographic on Disney+.

Growing Up Wild Activity Book

See the source image

Project Wild offers a great resource for educators and parents with children aged 3 – 7. The Growing Up Wild book (order it here) covers 27 themes, including “Oh Deer (a habitat theme)”, “The Deep Blue Sea”, “Who Lives in a Tree”, and “Wildlife is Everywhere.” Each theme includes: several ideas for group activities, and for self-guided exploration stations, recommended books (fiction and non-fiction), songs and movement activities, outdoor exploration ideas, math activities, art projects, snack ideas, links to videos (listed here) and “take home” sheets with ideas for parents to try at home. (See sample theme here.)  Each theme also includes a list of numerical codes for which Head Start Domains and which NAEYC Accreditation Criteria are met by the activities, and warm up and wrap up activities to assess children’s prior knowledge and learning outcomes. (Learn more about the contents of the book here.)

I attended a training where we had the opportunity to try out several of these activities. Some samples:

  • Looking at Leaves. The instructor had collected 25 leaves, and given us each one. She asked us to look at our leaves and memorize them. You could ask children to think about how to describe their leaf: shape, color, texture, and so on. Then we put them all in a pile and mixed them up, then had to find our own. Simple, free, and great for teaching attention to detail, visual discrimination, and short-term memory. Easy to customize to age group, or to start a year with leaves that are very easy to tell apart, and over the course of time, have collections with more subtle differences. After the leaf match, you could take them outdoors to find the plant their leaf came from. You could also do leaf rubbings or leaf prints, then add the leaves to a collage.
  • Spider Web Wonders. Draw a spider, discussing its anatomy (head, abdomen, 8 eyes, 8 legs that attach to the “head”). Children create spiders with a variety of craft or snack materials. The math game is “how many legs”. The teacher holds up a sign saying 0, and asking what creatures have zero legs. After children guesses, turn over the card to show a picture of the answers. (Snake, worm, etc.) Then do 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 14, 30+. A take home at Halloween time could be to check out Halloween decorations, and see how many of them get the spider anatomy wrong.
  • Hiding in Plain Sight. Gather a collection of toy animals (stuffed or plastic). Begin with a matched pair, and hide one in plain sight before the children arrive. Then show them the matching animal animal and see if they can spot the hidden one in the room. Talk about how it was hiding  in plain sight – for example, placed in front of a similar colored item it could blend into, or placed somewhere that’s visually very busy so it could “hide” in the clutter. Explain the basics of camouflage. Next, the teacher or some children “hide” more animals, either in the classroom or outdoors. BUT… they should be told to hide them in plain sight. Then take the other children out to search. Then, build camouflage collages: cut out photos of animals, have the child paste one onto paper, then surround it with tissue paper squares in the colors that would camouflage it. Play “freeze birds”, explaining that even when animals are camouflaged, they give themselves away if they move. The “hawk” closes his eyes while the “bluebirds” play. When you call out freeze, they freeze, and the hawk opens his eyes. If he sees anyone move, they become the hawk.

That’s just a small sampling of ideas. For educators this book could provide a full ready-made nature curriculum for  your class, or could provide lots of ideas you might sample as you build your own curriculum. For parents, there’s plenty of fun and easy ideas in here – you can try out any that seem fun to you.

To learn more about nature play, click on these links “Recommended Daily Allowance of Outdoor Time“, Benefits of Outdoor Play, and Overcoming the Barriers to Outside Play.

Getting Outside: Overcoming the Barriers to Outdoor Play

Spending time outside is great for kids’ physical health, mental health, and cognitive development. (Read about those benefits here). Plus, outdoor play is FUN!!

But although most parents say they would like their kids to have more outdoor time, they also see lots of barriers that prevent them from making it happen. How do we overcome those barriers and go play outside? Look below for tips on coping with: lack of access to nature, safety issues, lack of time, the inconvenience of muddy clothes, dressing for the weather, lack of interest in the outdoors (for child or parent!) and lack of playmates outside.

Perceived barrier: Lack of access to nature

(it’s too expensive, too far away, I lack the skills)

In several surveys, modern parents and children often say that there is no nature where they live. They say that outdoor recreation is too expensive, or that outdoor opportunities are too far away, or that they lack the knowledge and skills to participate in outdoor recreation. When asked to describe outdoor recreation, they often talk about things like national parks, ski areas, theme parks, water skiing, kayaking, and mountaineering. If you had asked a parent in the 1950’s where their kids play outside, they would have said: the backyard, the garden, the park, or the school yard. If you’d asked what activities their kids did outside, the first things that would come to mind would be: climb trees, dig in the dirt, and throw rocks.

Outdoor time doesn’t just mean a week-long camping trip in Yellowstone. It could mean just a little time outside every day on that little strip of grass at the corner of the apartment parking lot. It could be walking to school and noticing the plants, rocks and bugs in the neighbors’ yards. It could mean finding a little “patch of nature” that you can visit once a week. Maybe that’s a city park, but maybe it’s an empty lot in a residential neighborhood. (when my girls were little, we visited an empty lot two blocks from the Microsoft corporate campus, we saw coyotes, rabbits and snakes, and picked all the blackberries we could eat.) By looking further afield, you may find hiking trails, lakes, streams, arboretums, botanical gardens, farms, nature preserves, beaches, sandboxes, and other places to dig in the dirt. And for most of them, you can bring a picnic lunch and stay all day without spending any money.

For ideas for outdoor activities in an urban area, search online. Here’s a couple blog posts to get you started: http://projectwildthing.com/posts/view/296 and http://projectwildthing.com/posts/view/304.

If you feel like you lack the knowledge or skills for outdoor adventures, start small and simple with visits to the local park. When you’re ready, you can take on new challenges on your own. Or visit local outdoor supply stores to see if they offer classes, or check with your local parks department for classes and for group outings with an experienced guide.

You can also check out websites for lots of tips on outdoor activities with kids and how to make them successful. Try http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/family.html

Perceived barrier: Safety (traffic, stranger danger, etc.)

Parents often say “it’s just not as safe for kids to play outdoors as it used to be.” But statistics actually show that the rate of abduction by strangers has stayed steady for many years, and the risk of car-pedestrian accidents has decreased significantly.

  • Traffic: Choose outdoor play areas and neighborhoods with minimal traffic risks. Teach your child pedestrian safety rules (crossing at crosswalks, looking both ways, not running out into the street after a ball, and so on). Don’t allow children to play in the street. Yes, many of us played in the street when we were young, but drivers expected that then and watched out for it… they don’t now.
  • Note: “children at play” signs are not shown to be helpful at reducing risk – they don’t have much impact on driver behavior, but they do lead parents and children to have a false sense of confidence – which then leads them to behavior that puts them at risk
  • If you have specific concerns about traffic in your neighborhood, try contacting your city to see if there’s anything they can do. (here’s an example from my hometown.)
  • Some basics: it’s OK to talk to strangers when mom or dad are right there with you, but your parents aren’t there, don’t talk to the stranger. If an adult says they need help (with directions, with finding a lost puppy, etc.) then go to a trusted adult and let them know. Be sure your children know their full names, parents’ phone numbers, and where the trusted adults are near their home.
  • Enlist your neighbors. Get to know your neighbors, and make sure your kids get to know them too. Tell them you’ll help look out for their kids. Encourage them to help keep an eye on your kids.
  • Child’s Age: some parents worry about taking babies outside – “they might get dirty”, “they might eat dirt.” Read this article on benefits of outdoor play for babies: www.janetlansbury.com/2014/06/your-babys-call-of-the-wild-guest-post-by-angela-hanscom/
  • Risk of injury in outdoor settings: Unlike a modern playground, a natural setting has not been intentionally designed to meet rigorous safety standards. There may be sharp edges and hard surfaces and thorns and stinging insects. Whenever you’re out in nature with your child, be aware of potential hazards, show them to your child, and educate her about how to be safe if she encounters those things on solo adventures. There’s no need to frighten, but it is a good idea to teach caution and a healthy respect for nature.
  • Although there are potential risks outdoors, parents should remember that developing the habit of staying indoors all the time also carries risks: increasing the long-term chances of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

Perceived barrier: No time in the schedule

  • Homework: Some parents say “my kid has so much homework to do, it takes him forever, and we don’t have time left to go outside.” If that child was allowed to run and play outdoors for a half hour after school, research indicates that would help him concentrate better when he did settle down to homework, thus perhaps reducing homework time.
  • Extracurriculars: Children certainly benefit from organized activities that teach specific skills (e.g. piano lessons, baseball team) but there are unique benefits to unstructured play time, especially if that takes place outdoors. Finding a balance in the week’s schedule that allows for some unstructured time is the best option for maximizing a child’s learning potential.
  • Can your time do double-duty? Instead of driving to a store across town, could you walk outdoors to a store nearby? Instead of sitting in the car with one child while you’re waiting to pick up the other one from school, can you go for a short walk or play outside? If you work out in a gym, could you take your exercise outside and do it while your child plays?
  • Consider looking for a nature-based preschool or “forest kindergarten” to do double duty between school and outdoor play. Don’t worry that your child will miss out on academic skills if they don’t spend their preschool hours sitting at desks with pencil and paper. Outdoor time is great for brain development and they will be very ready for school when it comes around.

Perceived barrier: Outdoor play is inconvenient

  • Dirty clothes and dirty kids: Outdoor play is definitely messy. Parents may need to increase their tolerance for mess. It also helps to plan ahead: carry a full extra set of clothes, including socks and shoes, in the car at all times. Some parents carry a washcloth and some water in case you need to scrub the child down before putting on the clean clothes. It also helps to have a towel to cover up the car seat if needed (or I also use the towel to dry off wet swings and slides on winter playgrounds.)
  • Parents’ responsibilities: Parents say it’s hard to get things done (like cooking dinner) if the child is playing outside and needs to be supervised.
    • Can the child play outside without supervision? (with clear boundaries and safety proofing set up in advance, of course)
    • Can you team up with another parent and take turns supervising?
    • Can you take any of your work outside? You may not be able to do laundry outside, but with modern technology, you may be able to make phone calls, read and respond to email, catch up on Facebook, or read materials for work while your child plays outdoors. (Note: make sure you don’t spend all your time wired to the screen – parents benefit from outdoor play too!)
    • Note: If you find your kids are often being wild indoors when you’re trying to work, try taking a break to go outside and play. When you return inside, they may settle down.

Perceived barrier: Kids say outside is uncomfortable

  • Too hot: Plan your outings for early in the morning, or late in the evening. Consider lightweight sun-protective clothing, and a lightweight hat with a brim.
  • Too cold / too wet: Teachers at outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens (go to YouTube to learn more about these!) often say “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.” It’s well worth investing in a good pair of waterproof boots (I love my son’s Bogs rain boots and snow boots– they cost more than I usually spend on kids’ clothes (I get all their clothes at consignment shops), but they are easy for him to walk in, unlike most boots that flop around on kids’ feet, and they’re so waterproof he can wade in streams without his socks getting wet) and rain gear. We liked our Oakiwear rain pants and rain jacket. A friend swears by the Muddy Buddy Overalls.  Here are some more tips for how to dress for the outdoors in winter: www.raisingwildones.com/2014/01/how-to-dress-kids-for-winter-outdoor-play.html and how to dress for rain: www.modernparentsmessykids.com/2012/10/outdoor-preschool-how-to-dress-for-hours-of-rain-cold.html
  • Some young children do not like getting their hands dirty. Offer them shovels and tools to use, or you might even offer lightweight gloves if needed.
  • Good shoes are important: flexible soles are nice for dexterity, but they need to be thick enough that the child can’t feel rocks and sticks through them. Avoid open sandals and clogs that let in (and then trap) sand, pebbles, and bark. (I like water shoes for summer days at the lake or beach, as they can wear them in and out of the water and protect their feet.)

Perceived barrier: Kids aren’t interested

  • Kids would rather stay inside and watch TV / play video games / use the computer.
    • Don’t assume this to be true. When surveyed, many kids say they prefer outdoor time.
    • This is less likely to be true for kids who have spent a lot of time outside since they were small. It’s more likely to be true for kids who haven’t had any significant positive experiences outside. Getting those kids out to have those experiences may help.
    • Sometimes transitions are the hard part – you may have to force the issue of turning off the screen and getting outside, but after a while outside they usually settle in.
  • “There’s nothing to do!” If you have been taking your child outside to play since he was young, you’re less likely to hear that complaint. But if you have a child who is used to the high intensity stimulation of video games and amusement parks, it can be hard to slow down to enjoy the quieter pleasures of the outdoors. Having ideas for what to do outdoors may help.
  • Try to allow your child some freedom outside. Kids who are given a little extra independence are more interested in going out to play.

Perceived barrier: There’s no one to play with

It’s often disappointing to kids if they go outside to play and discover they’re the only ones there. Here are some strategies:

  • Find families who are focused on spending time outdoors: Check out your local parks department, campgrounds, and outdoor supply stores for classes, camps, and guided hikes. When you attend, make an active effort to network with other parents and set up future activities together. You can also search online (Meetup.com, Facebook) for “children and nature” groups, or look for local outdoors clubs, or search for a Nature Club (or learn how to start your own) at www.childrenandnature.org/movement/naturalfamilies/clubs/
    • If your child takes outdoor sports classes near your home, try to connect with some of those families who live nearby. It could be they’d also enjoy unstructured playtime outdoors too.
  • Encourage your existing circle of friends to play outdoors: When it’s your turn to host a playdate, make it an outdoor one. When friends are planning a gathering, encourage them to consider an outdoor site. Even if you’ve invited a child over to play on a rainy day where most of your time will be inside, be sure to spend a little time outdoors. Having some fun, unique outdoor play options can sweeten the deal.
  • Connect with the neighbor kids and parents.
    • Let them know that you would love a neighborhood where kids play outside together. Talk about how to make that happen. Offer to supervise other children.
    • Don’t worry if the kids are a wide range of ages. One of the benefits of unstructured outdoor play is that it works really well for multi-aged groups.
    • Try setting an “outdoor hour” at least once a week (hopefully more) when everyone tries to get their kids out together and where kids can rotate between multiple yards.
    • Set one day a week as “walk to school” day. Or organize walk-pools where parents take turns escorting kids on a walk to school instead of all the parents driving alone.

Perceived barrier: “I’m just not an outdoors person…”

Some parents feel like they should get their kids outside more, because they have heard about the benefits of outdoor time. But they find themselves dreading outdoor time because they have not enjoyed it in the past. It’s OK to start small, and with simple things that seem manageable to you. Yes, some parents take their kids wilderness camping or mountain biking or white water rafting. Maybe you just take your child to the playground often, or walk at botanical gardens, or go to the zoo, or just notice nature around you as you shop downtown. Yes, some families spend hours outside every day and go on week-long campouts every summer. You may manage one hour a week of intentional outdoor time. Do what you can. You may find that as you start small and have experiences you enjoy you may become more of an outdoors person and look forward to these times.

What will you do?

Some experts recommend that parents commit to a “green hour” – one hour a day that their kids spend outside. Does that seem do-able to you? Could you make that a goal to shoot for, even if you know there’s lots of days you won’t make it? On the days you do, congratulate yourself!

By spending time with our kids outdoors, we can develop life-long habits of getting outside and being active. This will mean our kids experience less stress, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, ADHD and sensory issues, and depression. And they’ll probably do better in school. It’s well worth the effort!

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.

Barriers to Outdoor Play

When parents and children are surveyed, they have a long list of all the reasons why kids don’t play outside anymore:

Safety issues: traffic, stranger danger, risk of injury in natural settings (parents often forbid outdoor play because of safety, plus some kids opt out of outdoor play because of these fears)

  • Safety could be increased if all parents were keeping an eye out for each other’s children (as they were more likely to do in the past), but on one survey, 44% of men and 28% of women would be wary to help a child in need of assistance, in case they were suspected of attempting to abduct the child
  • Although many people believe that the world is a “more dangerous place than it used to be”, statistics actually show that the rate of child abduction by strangers has stayed stable over the past 20+ years, and the rate of car-pedestrian accidents has gone down

They don’t have time

  • Homework stops kids from playing (34% of kids)
  • Kids are too busy with other recreational activities
  • Children’s time is very structured with after-school care
  • Parents report that work and other commitments limit the time they can spend outdoors with their kids

Outdoor play is inconvenient for parents

  • Clothes can get wet or dirty (not only is this inconvenient, but 2/3 of parents say they worry about being judged a bad parent if their kids’ clothes are dirty – Persil 2005)
  • Parents aren’t able to get their work / housework done while supervising outside play
  • In the past (e.g. 1950’s – 1970’s), parents often sent kids out in to play unsupervised in the neighborhood while they did their work. This rarely happens now. One survey showed 47% of adults think it is unsafe for kids to play out without supervision, 37% worry they will be judged by their neighbors if they let children out unsupervised

Kids aren’t interested in playing outside

  • It’s uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, too many bugs)
  • There is nowhere to play / nothing to do
  • There are lots of tempting reasons to stay inside (e.g. screen time)
  • Note: parents are more likely to report this as a concern than children are

Lack of access to nature

  • Outdoor recreation options are too expensive
  • Outdoor areas too far away, or they lack transportation to get there

There’s no one to play with / their friends don’t play outside

  • Parents of young children (toddlers and pre-schoolers) note that when other parents propose a playdate, they always seem to assume that the children will play indoors and rarely suggest meeting at a park or outdoor area

So, there’s lots of reasons NOT to go outside. Are there reasons to go out? Definitely! Stay tuned and soon I will post a list of risks of nature deficit disorder / benefits to outside time.

One quick benefit I’ll note is the quote “If your kids are bouncing off the walls, take away the walls!” Many parents discover that on the days when everyone is going crazy inside, just getting outside for a while can release lots of that energy and get everyone re-grounded. Watch the video linked at the top of this post for a look at this phenomenon.

Once you’ve decided that you want more outdoor time for your child, look here for tips on overcoming the barriers to outdoor play.