by Nia Fitzhugh
AmeriCorps Interpretive Naturalist
Deception Pass State Park
Running through the woods looking for “treasure”, racing the neighborhood kids after school to see who the winner of the week was, climbing trees and baking “mud pies” to serve to my grandma. Going outside to play and explore was an integral and fun part of growing up and they are among of my favorite childhood memories. But today, for a variety of reasons, childhood has moved from outdoor to indoor, from unstructured to highly structured play. There are many studies about the benefits of children interacting with nature and, while they may explore different aspects of the childhood development, I find it is all linked to the child’s body, mind, and social connections.
The benefits of being outdoors for children are not dependent upon joining a team sport or organized games. Unstructured outdoor play and movement encourage not only physical fitness but also allow children to use all their senses in a variety of ways as they engage with the natural world around them. Being outside playing and exploring not only expands children’s physical boundaries but also their mental and emotional ones, to name a few. When exploring different aspects of nature research has shown that children develop increased focus, improved cognition, and self-regulation skills. As they play and explore, they experience new emotions and learn to navigate how they feel about the world around them. They begin to question, make predictions, and experiment to find answers. On your next adventure, ask your child what they are curious about or encourage them to use their senses by asking them to feel and describe a tree’s bark or smell the ocean, if they see a puddle ask them how big of a splash do they think they can make. Give them the opportunity to lead you and explore their curiosity with them.
Children’s social skills are also affected by time outside in nature. Time spent in nature can also strengthen social bonds between children.
The unstructured time inherent in play allows for the social interactions that are important building blocks of emotional intelligence. When that play takes place in nature, children have increased opportunities for negotiating, sharing, problem solving, and working together (Drew, 2007).
When children play together in nature it enables them to engage in new social skills. On your next adventure invite a few of your child’s friends or explore meeting new friends. Let them discover the environment and new social interactions with unstructured play.
These are just a few benefits of bringing childhood back outdoors. It helps children’s overall development and wellbeing, especially within the first five years. So come out to the park and spend time in nature with your children of all ages. And if you can’t get out to Deception Pass don’t forget about your backyard, city parks, or green spaces.
Drew, W. (2007, June/July). Make way for play. Scholastic Parent and Child, 40-47.