Does your family spend a lot of time outdoors together? As the weather becomes warmer and children are out of school, summer is often the best time to head outdoors to play. While many may see outdoor play merely as an alternative to indoor play, it is much more significant.
It turns out that both adults and children are not spending as much time outdoors as they should or once did. In fact, in 2016, a UK study found that children are spending about half as much time outside as their parents did when they were younger. The lack of time spent outside is termed “nature deficit disorder.” While it may not seem too concerning to some at first, it has been said that the lack of being connected to nature is affecting children’s behavior negatively, making it difficult for them to be happy.
The first benefit of spending time outside that most likely comes to mind is that it encourages exercise. While this is true, playing outside has many more advantages than it often receives credit for.
1) Boosts Vitamin D
The benefit that you are probably most aware of is that vitamin D helps with maintaining strong bones. But it also helps with strong teeth and supports lung function and brain health. If that isn't enough, it also helps fight infections.
Luckily, you don’t need to spend hours outside during the summer to receive the benefits of vitamin D. In some cases, people can get enough sunlight to produce sufficient vitamin D by spending 10-20 minutes outside with their face and legs exposed. However, you do need to actually go outside – just sitting by a window won’t have the same effect.
2) Enhances Mood
One of the more recent as well as concerning issues that is being raised about the time people spend on technology is its effects on mental health. Social media, in particular, is known to increase feelings of depression and anxiety in some users. When people see what friends post on social media, it can make some users feel jealous or lonely. It is crucial to take time away to do more than focus on the lives of others. But spending time outdoors is not only a temporary fix for unhappiness. It has been found that children who spend more time outdoors turn out to be happier adults.
3) Helps Eyesight
The amount of people who are short-sighted is expected to grow significantly within the next 31 years. It has been predicted that by 2050, around 4.8 billion people will be short-sighted. This is a difference of approximately 2.8 billion more people being affected than in 2010.
While the exact causes of myopia (nearsightedness) are unknown, there is good news. Fortunately, there is something that can be done to help stop nearsightedness. It has been proven nearsightedness can be delayed or even prevented by getting outdoors to play.
4) Presents Educational Opportunities
When you spend time with your children outdoors, it is easy to actively engage them in order to make sure they are learning. The environment can spark conversations about many important subjects. These could be conversations about topics such as why it matters to recycle, the effects of littering and pollution and the different habitat qualities that animals need.
Furthermore, there are indirect ways that your child can become aware of concepts by the activities that they are involved in when they play outside. For example, your child can learn about cause and effect and spatial learning by spending time on a swing.
5) Sparks Curiosity
Your child's questions will most likely concern topics that they never asked about before, especially if they don’t spend much time outdoors. It is to be expected that there will be questions that your child asks that you will not know the answer to immediately.
While not having the answer isn’t the best feeling, this presents a learning opportunity for both adult and child. You can respond by taking a guess and encouraging your child to take a guess as well. Their learning can also be enhanced by making sure to look up the answer together and by discussing the findings.
6) Improves Sensory Skills
In order to help your child take full advantage of the different types of stimuli outside, don’t forget to ask questions. By asking questions, it can help your child better process what they are experiencing.
Consider asking your child:
- Do you think it is going to rain? Why or why not?
- What colors do you see the most in our backyard?
- How do different flowers feel?
While the great outdoors offers a great sensory experience itself, there are also a variety of activities that your child can take part in that can enhance it even more.
7) Increases Attention Span
Therefore, it is important to regularly disconnect for both children and adults to be able to refocus on what matters. Green outdoor spaces have even proven to be beneficial for children who have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), reducing their symptoms. Ultimately, working to improve your child's attention span is crucial as it will help them learn new concepts presented in school more easily.
8) Assists Cognitive and Social/Emotional Development
There are several basic concepts that children learn from playing games outside with other children. When children play with others, they are able to see how actions influence emotion. It is through these interactions that children can learn about the importance of sharing and taking turns.
Children from different family structures or backgrounds have different likes and dislikes and might have different ideas of games to play. As a result, children can learn to be open-minded to the thoughts of others and try new things.
Also, when children need to explain how a game works, they are able to develop their social skills. When it comes time for a new game, they learn to listen to others and the importance of following rules.
9) Develops Problem-Solving Skills
Although parents may see children arguing and want to immediately get involved to resolve the conflict, this isn’t always the best thing to do. For example, children might argue about what game to play or want to play with the same toy. When children are faced with such problems, they can learn how to negotiate or solve the problem themselves.
The weather also is a unique factor that occasionally presents a problem during outdoor play. The weather might not be cooperating with what your child wants to do outside. It might be too cold to go swimming in the pool so they will need to decide on another activity, such as drawing with chalk.
10) Fosters Creativity
If you are looking to make an art project or conduct a science experiment with your child but without the mess, take it outside! When you aren’t worried about the mess, you might feel creative enough to join in on the fun. Similarly, children will have more fun when they see that you are laid back and having fun too!
11) Improves Balance & Coordination
However, different outdoor toys, depending on their purpose and how the child decides to use them, can help children improve more than balance and coordination. When a child chooses to pull a wagon, it can help them develop muscle-strength.
12) Promotes Confidence
As children improve their skills or develop new ones, they will become more confident in their abilities. Consider a child who may not be able to scale their way across the monkey bars at the beginning of the summer. If they persevere and keep practicing over the summer, they can surprise themselves with a newly acquired skill.
When your child sees their skills improve and they become more confident in their abilities, they can become more confident in other ways. For example, this can translate into children becoming more confident socially as well.
13) Encourages Calmness
Children may get stressed due to problems with friends or overload of information they have at their fingertips due to technology. Therefore, it is not only beneficial to get children outdoors to be physically well, but to feel mentally well. It has been proven that contact with nature can reduce children's feelings of stress.
In fact, while you cannot get vitamin D from sunshine by looking through a window, you can get stress relief. Yes, you don’t even need to go outside to experience the stress-relieving benefits of nature! Instead, just take some time to look at trees out the window.
14) Combats Health Problems
The most well-known more immediate health benefit of spending time outdoors is that it helps children burn off energy and in turn, burn calories. You can also help your toddler fight heart disease by encouraging them to play outdoors. By regularly taking walks with your child can help you both have good heart health.
As mentioned above, one of the other more immediate benefits of vitamin D is that it can help fight infections. Alternatively, a lack of vitamin D can lead to children obtaining a skeletal disorder known as Rickets.
Do you urge your child to avoid playing in the dirt because of the mess? It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but playing in dirt is actually helpful in keeping children healthy. This is especially true for children that need to develop their immune system.
15) Leads to Better Sleep
There is a scientific explanation as to how not getting enough daylight and being on technology too much impacts sleep patterns. The truth is that the light we are around when we are indoors versus outdoors is very different. Because outdoor light is brighter and covers a broader spectrum, it helps regulate the body’s internal “sleep clock”. In fact, sunlight even improves the sleep of babies. Babies that slept best at night were exposed to twice as much light between midday hours and 4:00 p.m. compared to poor sleepers.
It is also important to note that when children are active outdoors, they use up more of their energy. This makes them more tired at night than when they spend all day sitting on the couch.
There are several easy ways to make the time your family spends outside together entertaining and memorable:
3 Ideas for Outside Activities
1) Plan a Nature Scavenger Hunt
If you are looking for a quick way to get started, you can find premade scavenger hunt sheets. Alternatively, if you are feeling creative, you can make your own easily. One of the best things about a nature scavenger hunt is that you can easily alter it to fit what you want. For example, you can keep it confined to the backyard or around the block. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can prepare a scavenger hunt for a walk in a local forest preserve.
2) Go to the Park
The park is a great option for outdoor fun and gives children an opportunity to meet those of similar ages. It is important to keep in mind that different parks may offer a unique selection playground equipment. This can lead to children having different experiences and developing a variety of skills. Therefore, you might want to consider scoping out several parks around your area. You can make planning a trip to the park fun by setting a goal to visit all of the parks where you live before the summer is over.
3) Plant a Garden
You can also use this as a time to teach your child about responsibility. Once you are done planting, you can encourage your child to stay involved by having them regularly water the garden.
Sarah Strobel is a Play Coordinator and Staff Writer for the Children's Museum in Oak Lawn. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.