Much of our formalized learning takes place indoors, but when it comes to physical, emotional and social development, nothing beats the outdoors. Beyond the well-documented benefits of play activities, there is simply so much to see and do – and to learn from real-life examples in nature. Further, it’s important to note that the lessons to be learned outside hold true for all ages, not just children. So here are a few reasons why you should make sure your kids play outside – and why it would benefit you to go with them.
The Power of Dirt
Much like we’ve learned in recent years that too much focus on and use of antibacterial products may be detrimental to the development of our immune systems, now we’re learning that the outdoors has its own set of bacteria that have health benefits for humans. Researchers have established that childhood exposure to outdoor microbes is linked to a more robust immune system; for example, Bavarian farm children who spent time in family animal stables and drank farm milk had drastically lower rates of asthma and allergies throughout their lives. And the benefits aren’t just for our immune systems; bacteria such as M. vaccae live in all soil and seem to provide a significant boost to brain power as well as mood. So the next time your kid wants to dig a hole for any reason, go get your hands dirty with them.
Nature as a Teacher
For much of our human history, spending time outside has been recognized as an important part of our development. Climbing rocks and trees builds strength, resilience and problem-solving skills. Playing in the mud nurtures creativity and, as we just saw, can even help build immunity. When we encounter death in nature, we learn about the fragility and value of life. And who better than Mother Nature to teach the crucial skill of embracing change? The cycle of day turns into night; the seasons shift; natural disasters occur and cause damage. But through it all, nature is resilient in the face of change. We learn that the things that happen in nature make room for the next thing. And so we learn that we don’t need to fear or resist change.
Here are a few more important life lessons we can learn by spending time outside.
Like every other living creature, we humans are meant to move. However, in our current society, both kids and adults are struggling with the effects of inactivity, particularly since the advent of “screen time.” What activity we do get is often through organized sports or carefully planned workouts, often indoors. While this is certainly better than nothing, our bodies and brains also benefit from the unstructured exercise we often get while outdoors. Pretty much every family member – including the dog – reaps multiple benefits from spending time together outside.
Often it seems our kids’ lives are structured around the “don’ts” – don’t get dirty, don’t be loud, don’t jump or climb, don’t make a mess – and we may not fully consider the ramifications of this on their development. Children are meant to do things – all sorts of things, not all of them tidy or perfectly safe – and to learn from the results. Being active outside isn’t just about the exercise; it’s also about considering manageable risks, developing a plan for success, taking the risk, and then either learning from the mistake or experiencing the growth of confidence that comes from success. Use common sense, but also consciously allow your kids take the small risks like climbing trees and jumping off the playground apparatus so they’ll learn how to approach the bigger risks later in life.
Slow Down and Observe
Mindfulness is a hot topic for adults these days, but why not for children? Their lives are often just as overscheduled and rushed as our own. Humans have developed various approaches to it, such as grounding and forest bathing, but the bottom line is that slowing down and observing whatever’s around us is a good way to foster perspective. We are unfathomably huge to the ants working busily on the ground, but we in turn are tiny under the clouds making shapes above us. We’re clumsy and slow compared to the jackrabbits in the fields and the fish in the streams, but we’re blazingly fast to the tortoises and snails. The world is a big place, but spending quiet time outside can help our kids understand their place in it.
Regularly spending time outside allows us to witness how things actually work in nature – and one of the first things kids notice is how long things can take! Mother Nature doesn’t supply all the things this very minute, and she won’t be rushed. It takes time for the flowers to bloom. It takes time for eggs to hatch, fruit to ripen, trees to grow. We can all benefit from remembering that people are the same way: we all need time to grow and develop and change. So the next time you’re feeling impatient with your kids or just your life, take everyone out for a walk.
Growing Never Stops
As a corollary to being patient, allow us to repeat one we mentioned at the top: While it may take a while to become noticeable, nature shows us that everything changes. Babies and kids grow in what seems like no time at all, but we’re all still growing and changing in ways not so easy to see. Take inspiration from the birds busy at their nests and the spiders spinning their fragile webs: Never be afraid to learn something new, don’t hesitate to rebuild something bigger and better, and encourage your children to do the same.
Don’t Forget to Play!
True statement: All living creatures play – even bugs! Play is how children learn, yes – but it’s important for you too. It should be clear by now that not only your kids, but you as well have a lot to gain by going outside and just being present for some unstructured time. Consider it a mini-adventure you can go on anytime you like. We hope to see you there!
Park Place Recreation Designs, Inc. is a commercial-grade park and playground equipment consulting and design firm headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. We have loved serving South Texas and it’s recreation needs for the past 40 years by providing safe, durable and competitively priced park and playground equipment.