I love being in nature! Turns out there are cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits of unstructured time outside. All those benefits are just out there waiting for our kids to claim. So let's get them out there! In this episode I outline what the research is saying about the importance of turning off electronics and playing outdoors. I also give some tips about how to make the most out of family hiking adventures.
Happy Summer! If you’re like my dear friend Chelsea, a faithful weekly listener of Raising Today’s Kids, then I need to apologize for abruptly disappearing for the last few weeks. I did not anticipate that my summer schedule would interfere so much with releasing episodes, but now that it has, I guess I need to be a realist and let you know not to expect more than a couple episodes the rest of the summer. Sorry Chelsea!
I’ve been doing more summer traveling than usual because of several family events we went out of state for. Plus my husband and I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Chile to view the recent total solar eclipse. It’s been busy, and challenging, but so fun and memorable.
On one day of our travels, we were so spoiled by getting to visit Zion National Park in southern Utah. It is such a wild piece of earth with giant cliffs and untamed rivers, and beautiful desert flowers. There are some unbelievable red sandstone formations that are a stunning contrast to the bright blue sky.
My favorite thing to do in Zion is go canyoneering, where we repel deep into the canyons carved out by those untamed rivers and travel down the same path the water has taken. We never know exactly what the trail will look like because when a flash flood surges through, it will haphazardly spread trees, rocks, and debris that, when we show up, we get to maneuver over, around, or under. There are always puddles/ponds scattered at the bottom of the canyon, but we never know how many, or how deep they will be until we step, or jump into them.
So a few weeks ago, after exploring one of my favorite canyons with my husband, my sister, and her friend, I was feeling so grateful for the beautiful earth, and for fresh air, and for my healthy body. I kept thinking about how I couldn’t wait to take my kids to that canyon, when they’re a little older, and of what hikes I would do with them in the meantime to prepare them for the big canyons.
I love the opportunity that summer gives us to spend more time outside. We have much less structure, and my kids can receive more of the benefits of all that outdoor play.
So today I want to talk a little about what those benefits are and give a few tips for hiking with kids. And then in next week’s episode, I will share some parenting analogies from the trail.
In the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing’s Ask the Expert section from ten years ago, Martha Driessnack talks about how in our plugged-in world, “children are in some ways on house arrest and in danger of losing their capacity to think or learn about the world directly.” (That was ten years ago!) (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1744-6155.2009.00180.x)
Research has shown that being in nature increases children’s attention spans, creative thought processes, problem-solving abilities, self-discipline, and self-regulation, while reducing stress and depression. Basically it is key for children’s physical and emotional health. Martha said, “It also appears to reduce symptoms in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ... where the “greener” the natural setting, the greater the relief from symptoms. While indoor activities, such as watching TV, or outdoor play on paved, “nongreen” areas, increase ADHD symptoms.” (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1744-6155.2009.00180.x)
In a study on outdoor play policies in schools, published in the International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, Kathleen Burriss and Larry Burriss address the national trend toward decreasing children's outdoor time in schools. Educators responsible claim that kids need to focus and learn more, but what they don’t realize is that kids’ brains are more capable of learning when they’ve had recovery time. (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ963739.pdf)
In that same study they also discuss the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits of playing outside:
- Regarding cognitive benefits they said, “play provides children with opportunities for concept development; they test out and refine existing world concepts. “In mud play, the children develop concepts of mass, volume, and the nature of change”. Recess time ...provides children with stimulating intellectual activity.”
- Regarding social development they talked about how, “The unstructured nature of recess and outdoor play maximizes children's opportunities to approximate, test, and review their social approach and maintenance efforts.” So basically kids practice interacting with each other and learn what works and what doesn’t, i.e. what wins friends, and what pushes them away.
- Outdoor play helps children develop emotionally as “children become both leaders and followers; they practice perseverance, self-discipline, responsibility, and self acceptance… they learn to take others' perspectives, send and interpret social cues, and use language effectively.”
- And of course there are obvious physical benefits to outdoor play like weight management and bone development. Playing outside also sends fresh blood to the brain and causes natural chemicals to support greater numbers of connections between neurons. (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ963739.pdf)
And for even more evidence - Rhonda Clements, published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood journal, shared more of those benefits. “Outdoor play ... offers children sensory experiences with dirt, water, sand, and mud; ...opportunities to find or create their own places for play; collect objects and develop hobbies… Between the ages of three and 12 a child’s body experiences its greatest physical growth, as demonstrated by the child’s urge to run, climb, and jump in outdoor spaces. These enhance muscle growth, and support the growth of the child’s heart and lungs and other vital organs. Active play stimulates the child’s digestive system and increases the growth and development of the fundamental nervous centers in the brain for clearer thought and increased learning abilities (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1463949116647290)
So the benefits go on and on! Kids need to be outside! They need to run around, interact with nature, and get dirty.
This understanding is important for parents since technology has threatened to reduce and even sometimes eliminate outdoor play. Some people even believe in something called “nature-deficit disorder.” We need to be extra proactive about encouraging and providing opportunities for our kids to play outside. Like Deanna Lambson mentioned in the White Ribbon Week episode, building a tree house in a video game is not the same as building a tree house in real life!
Apparently, our brains actually work much differently in nature than they do inside. According to a study from the University of Alberta, brain activity associated with sensing and understanding information changes when doing the same action outside versus inside. (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early2017/12/06/157941.full.pdf)
So even structured outdoor experiences are beneficial, the school play policy study says that in schools that incorporate outdoor learning, students have "better performance on standardized [tests] in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies; reduced discipline and classroom management problems; increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning; and, greater grades and ownership in accomplishments.” Amazing! (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ963739.pdf)
So what can you do to create outdoor play opportunities for your kids? My kids have a safe place to play right out our back door, so that’s a convenience I’m extremely grateful for. But I also love to arrange time exploring nature as a family.
Tips for Hiking with Kids
I especially love hiking together, and feel it’s important to spend time climbing our nearby mountains. Unfortunately, my kids aren’t always as excited about as I am, but once we get out there they always love at least a portion of it.
We’ve learned that if we pick one that’s too hard for our kids, or if they’re hungry or tired or hot or if there’s mosquitoes or something, then they’re not as happy with the idea. But if we can kind of control as much of those factors as possible, then it’s a more positive thing. (If we can’t control all those things, then that’s life. They need to have challenges, and what a great way to challenge them in a healthy, appropriate way…as long as we’re safe of course.)
There was one time when we said we were going to go hiking and it was going to be a really short one, not far from our house, and our kids were like, “no we don’t want to go hiking” you know, making a big stink about it, but when we got there they loved it. They had so much fun they didn’t want to leave. I said, “wait a second, you don’t like hiking, so you must not be having fun.” And they said, “this isn’t hiking, this is exploring.” I was like, “so as long as I call it exploring you’ll like it?” Ok. Easy enough.
And they made a good point, because there is often so much to do on the trail; so much to explore. So one of the things we try to do is to go slow and let the kids look at the rocks, and climb on the logs, and touch the water. Sometimes we may not reach it to the top of where we’re trying to go. So we’ve decided that’s ok. Our goal is to get out and get fresh air, escape the stresses of life, and enjoy nature. If for some reason, it is important to reach the top then I know I just need to factor in extra time and extra snacks and whatever else might go with that.
There was one hike we did on Easter weekend and it was with a bunch of cousins and extended family. So we decided to celebrate Easter on the hike by bringing Easter eggs and hiding them on the trail. The kids loved it of course, and that started a tradition of leaving little snacks or treats on the trail for the stragglers behind to find and pick up as motivation to keep going.
Regardless of what your outdoor activities are, the key is to have them. My sister-in-law actually has “play outside” on her kids chore charts. It is simply a requirement for them to spend time outside every day.
All right, it’s time for me to to get out of my office, and go do some yard work. I’m looking forward to all the benefits I will get from being in nature.
Keep being an awesome, intentional parent. Your child needs you! So keep loving them and doing the best you can.
Thanks for listening, and have an awesome day!