Getting Kids Back to Nature

By: Rae Pica

When I was a kid we had twice-daily recess on school days, and once the last bell of the day rang, there was never any thought of being indoors. On weekends and summer days, we ran out of the house first thing in the morning, hollered for the next-door neighbor to come out to play, made quick trips in for lunch and supper, and then reemerged until darkness and our moms forced us inside.

Today’s children spend little or no time outside. With studies showing that children spend from thirty-six to forty-four hours a week with electronics, there’s little time left for being outdoors. Also, more and more kids’ lives are too overscheduled for free outdoor play. When they’re not attending an organized class or program, they’re busy with homework, being drilled with flashcards, or “learning” on the computer. And because school is now more about seatwork and meeting requirements for standardized tests, they’re lucky if they get fifteen minutes of recess a day.

But when children spend most of their time indoors, they’re missing out on everything the outdoors has to offer them.

To begin with, the outdoors is the best place for young children to practice and master emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement. It’s also the place where they’re likely to burn the most calories, which is absolutely necessary in the fight against obesity. 

Additionally, the outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate the biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel happier. Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D. And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity!

Young children learn much through their senses, and the outdoors is a virtual wonderland for the senses. There are different and incredible things for the children to see (insects, clouds, and shadows), to hear (traffic sounds, birdsongs, leaves rustling in the wind), to smell (flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow, a raindrop, or a freshly picked blueberry).  Children who spend much of their time acquiring experiences through television, computers, and even books are using only two senses (hearing and sight), and this can seriously affect their perceptual abilities. Also, much of this learning, which falls under the content area of science, can’t be acquired indoors. Nor can children who spend most of their time indoors be expected to learn to care for the environment.

Outside, children are more likely to invent games.  As they do, they’re able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way.  They feel in control, which promotes autonomy, decision making, and organizational skills.  Inventing rules for games promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary.  And although children are just playing to have fun, they learn:

· communication skills and vocabulary, as they invent, modify, and enforce rules;

· number relationships, as they keep score and count; and

· social skills, as they learn to play together.

Then, too, there’s the aesthetic value of the outdoors.  Because the natural world is filled with amazing sights, sounds, and textures, it’s the perfect resource for the development of aesthetics in young children. Since aesthetic awareness means a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around us, it’s something that can serve children well at those times when, as adolescents and adults, the world seems less than beautiful.

Children learn their values from the important adults in their lives. When you don’t encourage them to go outdoors, they learn that the outside doesn’t matter.

I realize it may not be possible to go back to the “good old days” when children roamed free. So if concern for your child’s safety is keeping her indoors, remember that any time you set aside to play with her can be spent outside. Sometimes it’s just a matter of playing outdoors the games you would have played indoors, like Follow the Leader.

Also, in the same way you arrange play dates for your little one, you can trade off with other parents who are willing to supervise the children’s outdoor play. Or in the same way you hire a babysitter for evenings out, you can hire a daytime “play attendant” when there isn’t an adult available.

By giving your child every chance to be a part of the outdoors and nature, you’ll be contributing to his health and well-being and enriching his experience as a human! After all, we evolved in the outdoors. As much as we may have changed since our days as cave dwellers, our brains are still hardwired for an existence in nature. We therefore have an innate link with it that, when broken, leaves a part of us bereft.

Rae Pica is a children’s physical activity specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child (Marlowe & Co., 2006). She has shared her expertise with such clients as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Centers for Disease Control, Gymboree Play & Music, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. You can visit Rae at


Article Comments: 1 Comment

Other Articles In: Activities