There are a myriad of reasons for the nature-deprived state we find many kids in. Dr. Joanne Baxter, an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, points to the simple fact that most families are just plain busy. In between jam-packed school days and extracurricular activities, parents can barely squeeze in sit-down meals, let alone outdoor play. This is especially true in winter when you consider how much time it takes just to get ready to go outside.
Safety concerns also factor in. “Parents may feel that they need to protect children so are more hesitant to let them play unsupervised outdoors,” says Baxter. While parents may have played outdoors on their own throughout their childhoods, they are reluctant to let their kids do the same. And because parents are often unavailable to supervise outdoor play, kids wind up spending most of their time indoors.
While these challenges and concerns are very real, so too are the benefits of exposing kids to the great wide open. There are health reasons such as the need for fresh air and preventing vitamin D deficiency.
Add to that the many developmental reasons. “Children are naturally curious and are learning about their world in the early years,” says Baxter. “[They] need exposure to as many different activities, events, places, and objects to develop. Exposure to the outdoors contributes to development in all areas—cognitive (how things work), language (new words, listening), physical, social, emotional, and more.”
Outdoor play is equally important in fostering a love for nature. “Children develop appreciation for nature and how things and animals grow,” affirms Baxter. “They may begin to understand how to care for their environment and things in that environment. This is a great way to develop emotional and social skills that will be needed throughout life.” Helping kids learn to care about the earth and living things is a critical life skill that requires that they actually experience nature firsthand.
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And being outside inevitably leads to active play like tag, jump rope or climbing trees that simply doesn’t occur when kids are cooped up in front of a computer or TV. It’s old news by now that kids today have abundant “screen time” that often leads to lack of physical activity and obesity. Getting them outdoors can effectively encourage them to stay active and battle the bulge into adolescence and adulthood.
“The experiences that children have in their early years will set the foundation for life,” emphasizes Baxter. “If they engage in many outdoor activities and are encouraged by the adults in their lives, they will build the skills and knowledge to feel comfortable and continue activities. If adults do not positively promote these activities because it takes too long or is too hard to organize, then children will not develop the values to sustain these activities.”
Plus, outdoor activities don’t have to cost a lot. You don’t have to outfit your whole family with gear and take them to a fancy ski resort (although if you can and want to, it’s a great option for an outdoor family excursion). “Depending on lifestyle, cost, time and accessibility, parents may aim for different things,” says Baxter. “Just going to the backyard to run or swing or play in the snow or to the community playground may be enough [especially in winter when daylight wanes early].”
Consider how much better you feel after a brisk walk or just taking a quick break outside when you’re having a hectic day. The same is true for kids. “Children will benefit as much as adults from spending time outdoors when they are young and as they grow and develop,” states Baxter. “Outdoor activities provide health benefits and a simple way to relieve stress.”
Ultimately, we all know how easy it is to let things slide. If the weather’s not great, if it’s just too much effort to suit everyone up, if you’re running late—these things crop up all the time and provide excuses to skip heading outdoors. It’s only when parents make a dedicated effort to incorporate outdoor time in daily routines for themselves and their kids that it will actually happen.
“Adults can help to instill a love of nature and the developmental skills for outdoor activities by being active with their children,” says Baxter.
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