Get out and play! Four reasons why exposure to nature is essential to our children’s well-being


There is growing evidence that direct experiences with nature are essential to 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

While many sports are played in the great outdoors, when I talk about time outdoors, I am not talking about organized sports in this article. I refer to lonely, random or unstructured time in the open air.

The health benefits are numerous. Playing outside does not increase the risk of getting sick. Kids don’t get colds from cold weather, they get colds from germs. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is the number one environmental concern in our country; from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution. Excessive indoor play has also been linked to childhood obesity. Playing outside promotes physical endurance and strength.

The physical and social activity that children experience 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 discover the value of teamwork. These are important lifelong community-building skills.

A New York-based study followed 133 people from baby to adulthood. The study found that adult competence stemmed from three key factors in the early years: 1. Rich sensory experience both indoors and outdoors 2. Freedom to explore with few limitations 3. Parents who were available and acted as advisors when their child asked questions.

Most people in today’s world do not see nature as a cure for emotional hardship. We rarely, if ever, see an advertisement for nature therapy, although we see many advertisements for antidepressants or behavioral medication. Plenty of parenting books offer advice on how to deal with challenging behavior. Rare, however, is the advice manual that recommends spending time 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 amplified by a child’s disconnection from nature. While not a cure for major depression, time spent in nature can relieve the daily pressures that can lead to depression.

If parents saw a child’s time in nature not just as leisure time, but as an investment in our children’s health, we would be doing them a huge favor.


The internet is here to stay and can be a great tool. However, its overuse has been linked to higher levels of depression and loneliness.

An overwhelming amount of sensory input is being pushed to our children. As a result, many children develop a ‘know everything’ mentality. If it can’t be googled, it doesn’t matter. Consequently, children miss out on the infinite possibilities that exist outside the wired world. Indeed, the serenity of the outside world can provide a sense of quiet awe – something not even the most sophisticated computer can provide.

In our society, children easily get attached to “things”. It is important to take the time to tell our children what makes us happy outside of the material world. Tell them why experiences like gardening, taking a long walk, and watching a sunrise make us feel better. Avoid the message that all things that make us happy must come from a store.


Studies show that children engage in more creative forms of play in green areas than in manufactured play areas. Natural environments stimulate imagination and make believe. Boys and girls also play more equal and more democratically in the open air. There is a sense of wonder that makes children ask more questions.

Also, ideas and imagination are not limited by what is man-made, but can extend to anything beyond that is naturally available. Lawns, trees, sticks and rocks can become pretty much anything you can imagine. The creative possibilities are endless.

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

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A natural environment is much more complex than any playing field. It offers rules and risks and uses all senses. Outdoor challenge programs have shown a direct correlation to self-confidence long after the experience has ended.

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


TV, while informative, can give a distorted picture of the ‘dangers’ of Mother Nature. As a result, children may interact less with friends and neighbors. Less interaction with neighbors only leads to 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 animal attacks have led many parents to prefer indoor play dates or visits to fast food playgrounds. While there is of course a real risk, fears of danger from strangers and attacks from wild animals have been played heavily by the media. Children are especially vulnerable to media coverage. They see one report of an attack or kidnapping and assume it happens everywhere. Children don’t think globally (and because of the way it can be presented in the media, many adults don’t either). Author Richard Louv, in his book “Last Child in the Woods,” describes an example of a high school teacher who expressed concern after taking his students on a camping trip. Apparently, some of the students struggled to enjoy the experience because they were terrified that what happened in “The Blair Witch Project” would happen to them.

When I’m outside or walking with my kids, I’d rather say “pay attention” than say “watch out.” Paying attention encourages them to be aware with all their senses and avoids generating an irrational fear of “what’s out there.”

Children may also resist unstructured outings because they find it ‘boring’. This, too, may be related to media programming, which tends to focus on natural disasters. While it is very educational at times, it can also be extreme. Accordingly, unless kids see a bear tearing apart a calf, they feel like they’re not getting enough – it’s boring. Make sure to balance the media attention with a positive real life experience.

While it’s important to teach our children about environmental awareness, there’s a risk that if they don’t experience direct positive interaction with the outdoors, anything related to nature will be associated with fear and destruction rather than joy and wonder. Too much emphasis on “saving the planet”, global warming and environmental abuse can lead young people to see 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 practical experience.


Before you start packing the family and outdoor gear and planning a trip to the Grand Canyon or giving up hope because you don’t plan to go 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 as if not more satisfying to a young child than the well-known wonders of the earth.

Parents don’t have to “teach” their children to instill an appreciation for nature. Observing a simple march of ants can cause surprise. Skipping stones in a stream or picking up stones to count worms after a rain shower is an education in itself.

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Hiking is a wonderful means of experiencing the natural world. However, a parent’s walk can become a child’s forced march. Be careful to present the outing rather than push it. Make it a shared adventure. “Come outside with me” or “Let’s go for a walk” may not sound very interesting, but “Let’s find stones to build a fortress” or “Let’s see who can climb the biggest rock” offers a lot more possibilities.

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

Many parents express concern when they see their children “doing nothing.” In fact, alone time can be very rewarding, as children get to know themselves, their strengths, and their desires on a deeper level. Don’t tell children not to daydream or stare out the window from time to time. How else can they really appreciate the splendor of nature without being lazy every now and then?

For single parents, there are many wildlife organizations and online groups that encourage participation in single-parent families.

Make a list with your child of what you really enjoy doing. The answers may surprise you. Many kids will say it’s time to get outside for organized sports that they really enjoy. Reevaluate your schedule to accommodate what you really enjoy doing.

Get input from schools, conservation organizations and friends. Do go outside!