Outdoor play: How nature helps kids grow

Being outdoors provides essential developmental skills for kids. Here’s why.

By Colleen Seto

Outdoor play: How nature helps kids grow
It seems all too strange when children playing outside are considered a novelty. But increasingly, kids are seeing a lot less of the great outdoors beyond the confines of a moving vehicle or classroom window.

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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