Besides giving Mom a little peace and quiet in the house, are they any true benefits to sending the kids outside to play? Couldn’t they just exercise on the Wii and do some educational games online? As a nation, we are collectively engaging in an accidental experiment to find out: today’s kids spend 50% less time outdoors than children did 20 years ago. The result? A sharp increase in childhood obesity, attention disorders and other health problems.
While there are various factors involved in these troubling trends, there is a growing consensus that spending time outside is key to raising thriving, healthy children. Richard Louv, in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe this phenomenon and suggests that time in nature is critical for a youngster’s healthy development. In fact, roaming the park, backyard or other green space has a clear positive effect on kids’ health, mental state and academic performance.
Climbing trees, running through the grass and rolling down the hillside build endurance, muscular strength and coordination, the building blocks of lean, fit children. In addition, playing outside on a sunny day provides a dose of Vitamin D, a crucial nutrient for bone health and more. Finally, kids who play outside have better distance vision than those who are mostly indoors.
While it’s a no-brainer that running and climbing in the fresh air is good for reducing childhood obesity, the link between academic performance and the great outdoors may come as more of a surprise. According to a 2003 study, schools that implemented environmental education programs saw a jump in test scores. In addition, outdoor time is linked to a reduction in ADHD symptoms for those who struggle to focus on their studies. The New York Times details the power of exercise to “build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance[s] cognitive flexibility”, clearly something that would benefit students at all levels.
Time outside, particularly among nature, boosts kids’ mental health across the spectrum. Whether daydreaming atop an apple tree or having a picnic under the open sky, unstructured time outdoors allows children’s busy minds to slow down and recharge. In fact, these activities can reduce stress, anxiety and depression in youngsters.
Fortunately, avoiding Nature Deficit Disorder does not require moving to a yurt in the wilderness! In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends just 60 minutes a day of unstructured free play to protect children’s physical and mental health. Begin by focusing on experiencing the green spaces in your neighborhood, including parks and backyards. Leave a corner of your yard “wild” and your child’s imagination will do the rest. Resist the temptation to turn every hike into an educational lesson on tree nomenclature or climate change and just let your kid interact with nature on his or her own terms.
Most of all, remember to just have fun!