What’s so great about the great outdoors?
During the long hot summers growing up in Ohio, my sister and I would watch cartoons in the mornings for as long as our parents would allow. We would inevitably grow restless, push each other’s buttons, and generally cause trouble until our mom would command, in her I’m-at-the-end-of-my-rope voice, “Go play outside!”
And we did. For hours and hours. Sometimes she wouldn’t see us until after Kick the Can wrapped at 10 pm. Other times she would bring us snacks in the woods down by the river behind our house and catch us playing “Explorers”; I was always Francisco Pizarro.
Mom didn’t make us play outside because it was good for our health, though. She just wanted us out of her hair. But what we know now is that those three words, go play outside, are the most important three words you could say to a child. (Ok maybe second place after, “I love you”.)
According to sources like the National Wildlife Federation, there is growing evidence that just being outside helps our kids grow in body, mind and spirit. Consider these facts:
- One in three American kids are obese. Outdoor play builds strong, active, healthy bodies. It doesn’t take much to see the link between decreased amount of time kids spend outside and increased childhood obesity.
- Vitamin D from the sun protects children from future health problems such as bone problems, heat disease, and diabetes.
- Natural settings have been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD.
- Schools with environmental education programs score higher on many standardized tests, and students show increased critical thinking.
- Studies have shown that stress levels in children fall within minutes of seeing green space.
- Unstructured play can enhance emotional development, whereas “over scheduled” kids show more signs of anxiety and depression.
- Connecting with nature teaches how we are all connected, it enhances social interactions, instills value for the community, and fosters responsibility for shared resources.
Our challenges today, which perhaps our parents didn’t face as much, are the obstacles to getting our kids outdoors. When we see growing populations and shrinking open space—not to mention other issues such as access, safety, finding the time, and a resistance to being off our digital devices—the barriers become very real.
Still, it is worth the effort. If we can commit to finding even small ways to connect our kids with the outdoors, the benefits are far-reaching.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods writes, “Perhaps, as the years go by, these young people will realize their sense of purpose in this cause, and dedicate their careers to it. Not just as a matter of ideology, or even survival, but because they see the potential joy that they and their own children could share someday, as could many of us—if we act quickly.”
One small effort from parents equals huge benefits for kids and the world. If our young people grow up experiencing the joy of nature, they will be much more likely to protect it for future generations. This has worldwide implications, from mental and physical well-being, to mitigating global warming, to ensuring ample food sources and disease prevention.
So, the next time you tell your kids to “go play outside”, you can follow it with, “the world will thank you.”