The Power of Outdoor Play
Why Kids Need Time in Nature
“In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”
—Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods
Kids are spending less and less time outside. Whether you chalk that up to the lure of screens, or access issues for those who live in cities, it’s troubling because studies show that nature is nothing short of a panacea for everything from stress to short-sightedness. You read that right: myopia (or short-sightedness) is on the rise because we’re not looking far away enough anymore, as we do when we’re following a trail or dribbling a basketball toward the hoop at the other end of the court.
Eyesight aside, we also know that nature is the unofficial godmother of child development, helping kids grow intellectually, physically, and emotionally. If that motivates you to get the kid in your life outside more, here’s where to start.
Role Models for Parents
Just as kids look up to us, parents who want to get their kids outside more often can take cues from some awe-inspiring adventure families across the country.
Start ‘em Young: The Quirin family (@thedirtbagbaby) set a very high bar for parents aspiring to more outdoor family time. When their daughter Ellie was just one-year-old, they set out on a 2,190-mile hike across the Appalachian Trail. The next summer, the Quirins mountain biked from Canada to New Mexico with Ellie in a trailer. “Ellie has never had a routine or schedule,” says mom Bekah, “but she has a huge imagination.”
Nature-Based Traditions: Once a year, Diane Castañeda-Rodriguez (@dianecastaneda) and her husband Carlos visit a new national park with their daughter Alessandra. The tradition began when Diane took one-year-old Alessandra hiking in Zion. The next year, they traveled to Sequoia National Park. Now six, Alessandra has been to Yosemite and Joshua Tree, and has her sights set on Yellowstone this year. “We spend our money on travel, food, and good outdoor gear,” Diane says. “Our clothes are like 10 years old, but we have a lot of adventures!”
Ring in the New Year in Nature: Rather than have a party or watch the ball drop on TV for New Year’s Eve, Jordan and Crystal Haggard escape the chaos of the city with their six-year-old son Forest and go camping. When they wake up to a new year in nature, they find solitude during this less popular time to be outside and on the trails. And Forest continues to be his “best self,” as his parents put it, among the trees and the dirt.
Weekend Warriors and Proud of It: Instead of attempt to eliminate screens or set unrealistic goals for outdoor time, dad Ralph DeFelice (@daytripsla) just does the best he can with 13-year-old Enzo and 10-year-old Emi. “It’s not realistic to have your kids out in nature all the time,” he explains. After the school week ends, Ralph packs the kids in the car and heads to the mountains, forests, or beaches near their home of Los Angeles. The weekend warrior mentality may be mocked, but for the DeFelice family, it creates balance between life in the city and time in nature.
Learning from the Trees
Look closer between the pine and oak trees of Germany’s forests and you’ll spy over 1,500 kindergartens. Here, young children are used to spending their days—no matter the weather—in the forest, building shelters, telling stories, and playing hide-and-seek. Not only do these waldkindergarteners (wald means “forest” in German) probably have more fun than classroom kids, they also start speaking sooner, get sick less, and that’s just the beginning.
Luckily, you don’t have to move to Germany to let your little ones learn outdoors. U.S. schools are catching on, weaving in outdoor-based learning and curriculum. The Council of Nature and Forest Preschools tracks nature-based preschools around the world, while the American Forest Kindergarten Association keeps tabs on where you can send your five-year-old into the woods to learn.
A Daily Dose
Let’s dream of a world where kids explore nature every single day. That’s the vision of many nonprofits across the country, including San Diego Children & Nature, which helps schools create outdoor curriculum and experiences. In Colorado, Environmental Learning for Kids teaches urban youth leadership skills in the outdoors. Meanwhile, the Children & Nature Network helps kids get reacquainted with nature globally—and can help you find a nature club or organization near you.
Remember the Truth About Nature
We often mythify nature as only the untouched wilderness or the highest peaks. But nature exists all around us. Yes, it’s the mountains and forests, but it’s also the little strip of beach down the road, the secret trail behind your house, or the park around the block. Expose kids to different natural landscapes if and when you can, but also encourage kids to explore outside at home, even if it’s just skateboarding around a concrete jungle, or climbing the proud lone tree on your street corner.