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Outdoor Play is More Than Fun

I participate in a moms’ group where we support and encourage each other in our parenting endeavors. At one of our meetings, we were challenged to complete this phrase, “My family is best when …” It didn’t take me long to answer with “outdoors.” My children, ages six and three, fight less, are more engaged, and generally appear happier whenever we are outside. Somehow despite this, it can still be a struggle to convince them to go outdoors.

In preparation for this article, I found there is an ever growing body of research extolling the benefits of connecting with nature. From preventing obesity, to better mental health, to lifelong love and concern for our natural environment, it is worth the effort that it sometimes takes to get the kids out of the house.

As the weather is warming up and summer is just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to get outside and enjoy the beautiful mountainous landscape that looms over Salt Lake City or even just the backyard. Better yet, take a trip down to one of the scenic national parks in southern Utah before the summer heat arrives or go up north to Yellowstone National Park for a breathtaking getaway. Utah is blessed to have so much natural beauty within and around its borders.

I want to share with you some the great supportive research I found, complete with embedded links, and some tips that have been helpful in our own family for connecting with nature.

The American Psychological Association actively promotes the idea of taking children outdoors for mental health. Here is a snippet from Getting Back to the Great Outdoors, an article posted on their website:

“Psychologists have actively studied the role nature plays in children’s mental health since the early 1980s, when Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, PhD, introduced his theory of “biophilia,” which argues that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world. Now, a host of studies are showing just how essential outdoor activities are for the developing mind.

One of the most influential longitudinal studies, led by Cornell University environmental psychologist Nancy M. Wells, PhD, found that children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6). Similarly, in a study of 337 school-age children in rural upstate New York, Wells found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child’s resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress (Environment and Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 3).”

The Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders based in New York City, similarly advocates for getting children outdoors. They estimate on their website that nearly 17.1 million of the 74.5 million children living in the United States suffer or have suffered from a mental health disorder. That is greater than the number of children with cancer, diabetes, or AIDS combined. They argue just going outdoors can help.

In Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature, an article on their website, they claim that “the average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.”

This shift of kids spending more and more in time indoors now has a name: Nature-Deficit Disorder. It was coined by author Richard Louv, who has championed connecting kids with nature, and written a book titled with that same phrase, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience.”

The Child Mind Institute agrees stating “kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.”

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP, on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, gave a written testimony to the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans titled “No Child Left Inside: Reconnecting Kids with the Outdoors”, in which he stated, “Play in an outdoor, natural environment allows children to explore both their world and their own minds. … Nature places virtually no bounds on the imagination and engages all of the senses. For all children, this setting allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances.”

Now that you are convinced of the importance of spending time outside, maybe you’d like some ideas to help convince your children. Our family has found that it works best to give our children choices. Instead of dragging them along to a predetermined destination, we offer up a few ideas and call them adventures. It becomes a choose-your-own-adventure journey, which has helped a lot with cooperation and gives them a sense of ownership in the process. We have learned too that the destination isn’t necessarily the goal. Having fun along the way is better than pressing forward with a child who is overtired or just done. Small candies like jelly beans or smarties doled out slowly help to keep children moving forward as well.

Choosing short hikes that usually are a couple of miles long or less has been key. Some of our favorite hikes have been to Lisa Falls, Donut Falls, Mill B trail, Bloods Lake, Secret Lake, and Silver Lake. But also close to home can be just as fun at Wasatch Hollow or Miller Bird Refuge and Nature Park. We have an affinity for water. There is nothing more fun than throwing stones and twigs in a creek or lake. We also have a small inflatable pool and a sprinkler for the backyard.

A couple of years ago, we began a small vegetable garden in our backyard and let the children help decide what to grow, and they participate in planting and watering it. We let them use trowels to dig in the dirt among the flowerbeds, and they often create strange concoctions in a bucket consisting of mostly dirt, leaves, fallen flower petals, and twigs they discover in the backyard. Add a little water and they can entertain themselves for an hour or more.

We recently discovered the free Jr. Ranger programs offered through the national park system. We all learn a lot more about the national parks or forests we visit, and the kids love earning the accompanying badges for completing their booklets.

Need even more ideas? The Child Mind Institute offers a list with great ideas for ways to engage children outdoors from setting up treasure hunts to starting a collection to making art. Or sign up for a semester of Wasatch Wanderers here at CCNS!