boy and goat

By Amanda Rolfe and Linda Wasmer Andrews

Kids and outdoor play are a natural combination. Remember your own childhood days? Climbing trees, skipping stones, playing tag, and watching cloud shapes may still be vivid in your mind. But they’re memories that many of today’s kids may not share without your help.

A typical U.S. child spends mere minutes a day on unstructured outdoor play versus more than seven hours in front of an electronic screen, according to the National Wildlife Federation. They may be missing out on a lot more than just the chance to splash in a puddle or dig in the dirt. Research shows that spending time outdoors has a host of mental and physical health benefits, including:

  • Decreased stress
  • Improved physical fitness
  • Better distance vision
  • Reduced symptoms of ADHD

The more natural the outdoor environment, the greater the benefits seem to be. A recent study by Dawn Coe, PhD, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, compared children’s activity levels on natural versus traditional playgrounds. The natural playground incorporated logs, flowers, trees, rocks, and a creek into its design, and the traditional playground featured colorful metal equipment. Children were more active in the natural setting.

Go Out and Play!

How can you get your own child to turn off the screen and tune in to nature? These tips help nudge kids off the couch and out the door.

Open the Door

Connecting with nature can be as simple as stepping into your own backyard or walking to the nearest park. Encourage preschoolers to use their senses to explore their everyday world. What does the grass smell like? What do the clouds look like? How does the wind sound? What does the tree bark feel like?

School-aged children have boundless curiosity about the world around them. Encourage your budding naturalist by collecting leaves, stargazing, or watching insects together. Instead of buying your child another electronic toy, give a terrarium, microscope, or pair of binoculars. Got a houseful of bored youngsters looking for something fun to do? Send them into the backyard on a nature scavenger hunt.

Read All About It

There are a multitude of wonderful books that focus on nature, offering an indoor solution for rain-soaked afternoons. Timeless titles such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss have sparked an interest in nature among generations of young readers. Take a walk or bike ride to the library to discover many more.

Make the computer or tablet your ally. There are some wonderful, kid-friendly websites that focus on nature. Good starting places include National Wildlife Federation Kids, National Audubon Society Just for Kids, and EEK! Environmental Education for Kids. For your own information and inspiration, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Let’s Go Outside, and the Children and Nature Network.

Create a Masterpiece

Children are naturally creative and imaginative. Take advantage of the materials nature provides to create beautiful, meaningful works of art. Kids can draw in a nature journal, paint rocks for the garden, or press a flower in a book for a keepsake. Collect leaves, sticks, and pebbles on a nature walk, and glue them onto cardboard to create a landscape.

Pinecones can be dipped in paint and rolled on paper to print unique designs. Sticks and clay can be turned into sculptures, and nuts or shells can be transformed into one-of-a-kind jewelry. Let the natural materials at hand—and your child’s imagination—guide what develops.

Take a Field Trip

Plan family outings that turn into teachable moments. Go to a zoo, aquarium, or botanical garden. Take city kids to visit a farm. Check out local hiking and biking trails, and sign up for some of the family programs at nearby state parks.

Turn ‘Em Loose

Don’t think you have to turn every encounter with nature into an organized activity, however. Kids benefit, physically and emotionally, from free, unfettered play. Give children the encouragement, opportunity, and supervision they need to explore outside safely. Then sit back and watch. They can take it from there.

Amanda Rolfe is a kindergarten teacher with a master’s degree in psychology and the mother of a first-grader and a second-grader. Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master’s degree in psychology and Amanda’s mom. Follow Linda on Twitter or Facebook.

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