Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Where Do the Children Play in 2014?

Children who spend time outdoors have stronger spiritual connections.

When you were growing up, did you spend most of your time playing indoors or outdoors? Did you feel a spiritual connection to nature when you were younger? Do you still feel it as an adult?

A new study from Michigan State University found that children who spend significant time outdoors tend to have a stronger sense of self-fulfillment and purpose than those who spend most of their time inside.

The study, “The Origins of Aesthetic and Spiritual Values in Children's Experience of Nature,” was published in the May 2014 Journal of the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.

Lead author, Gretel Van Wieren, assistant professor of religious studies at MSU, found that kids who played outside five to 10 hours per week said they felt a spiritual connection with the earth. They also felt an obligation to protect the environment.

In a press release, Van Wieren said, "These values are incredibly important to human development and well-being. We were surprised by the results. Before we did the study, we asked, 'Is it just a myth that children have this deep connection with nature?' But we found it to be true in pretty profound ways."

Interestingly, the children in the study expressed feelings of peacefulness and a secular belief that some type of “higher power” had created the natural world around them. The children also reported feeling awestruck and humbled by nature's power, such as storms, while also feeling happy and a sense of belonging in the world.

Nature, Superfluidity, and Spirituality Coelesce

In my book, The Athlete’s Way, I have a section titled “The Ecstatic Process” which was inspired by Marghanati Laski’s book, Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences.

In 1961, Professor Laski created a survey to identify and isolate when people felt an ecstatic sense of connectedness to nature or oneness with a spiritual “Source.” If you’d like to read an 18-point compilation of her findings in an excerpt from my book, please click here.

Respondents to Marghanti Laski's survey used a variety of similar phrases when describing the spiritual connections they experienced in Nature. The descriptions included phrases such as:

"A sense of the oneness of things, you understand that everything in reality is connected to one thing ... I saw nothing and everything ... All the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony ... I saw and knew the being of all things in that moment ... The inner and outer meaning of the earth and sky and all that is in them ... I fit exactly ... I saw the Divine universe is a living presence in everything.”

Much like Laski’s research, the new MSU study specifically measured aesthetic values. The researchers found that children who engage in free play, outside, on a regular basis have a deep appreciation for beauty (i.e., balance, symmetry and color), order and wonder (i.e., curiosity, imagination and creativity). They were also fascinated with the lushness of green bushes, pattern-like blue spots sparkling in water, bees' nests etc.

For the study, Van Wieren and her co-researcher Stephen Kellert, from Yale University, used a blend of research methods that included drawings, diaries and observation, as well as in-depth conversations with both the children and the parents.

The researchers also found that the parents of children who expressed the highest affinity toward nature and the strongest spirituality had also spent significant time outdoors during their own childhoods. Many of the parents expressed a strong belief that their childhood experiences in nature shaped their adult lives and spirituality. I feel the same.

What is the Connection Between Nature and Spirituality?

"Nature offers a diverse display of colors, sights and sounds; uncertainty; multisensory qualities; and above all, aliveness," Van Wieren said, adding, "Nature is usually in a state of flux, which fosters problem-solving opportunities that build self-confidence."

As the father of a 6-year old, it's always been important that my daughter is able to develop a strong connection to nature and play outside. I was born in Manhattan in 1966. Luckily, we lived on the Upper East Side close to Central Park and were also fortunate enough to have a country house in the Berkshires. I was able to stay connected to nature throughout my youth and benefitted from that connection spiritually.

One of the most disturbing aspects of socioeconomic stratification is that having access to nature and living in a zip code with good schools is becoming a luxury that only the rich can afford. As the gap between the haves and have-nots grows ever wider, more and more children are being forced to stay inside. What can we do as parents, business owners and policy makers to change this disparity?

Since 1877, The Fresh Air Fund has provided 1.8 million New York City children from low-income communities with free summer experiences in the country. If you’d like to find out more about their summer programs for your child, please click here. The YMCA is also a terrific nationwide resource to find summer programming in your local community.

When New York City was going bankrupt in the '70s, the “concrete jungle” aspects of Manhattan drove my parents to move our family to Lebanon, Pennsylvania. My parents bought an old limestone farmhouse next to a huge Amish barn in Mennonite country. My parents gave me a horse named Commander, I joined 4-H and went to Sunday school at the Mennonite church down the road from our house. It was bucolic and idyllic.

My fourth grade teacher, Christina Neff—whom I stay in touch with to this day—loved Cat Stevens. His song “Morning Has Broken” was a Top 40 single at the time and she would play the "45" record before class most days of the week. Obviously, the Cat Stevens’ song “Where Do the Children Play?” is apropo for this blog post. Please take a few minutes to watch this live performance from his 1976 “Earth Tour."

Rural Pennsylvania in the '70s was a carefree “be home for dinner" time and a safe environment for my parents to let us run wild. Times have changed a lot since the 1970s. Today, most children spend the majority of their time indoors playing video games, watching television, surfing the internet...

Modern technologies and the internet have changed entertainment options, but the outside world is perceived by most parents as being “dangerous." Unfortunately, in many zip codes across the country, unsupervised playing outside can be risky and unsafe.

Parents across the country are afraid to let their kids roam freely in a world of missing children, reports of pedophiles and "Amber Alerts." Also, since 1960 there has been a 41 percent decline in birth rates, which has resulted in a smaller number of children who can hang out together and explore their neighborhoods or surrounding wilderness in bands.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, which is a book about how many children have lost touch with nature, points out that boundaries for kids used to be measured by a small radius within a few blocks or miles of home. Today many kids are under “house arrest” and don’t get much farther than the front yard.

Louv has found that many parents are afraid of letting their children play outdoors and feel safer knowing that their child is watching TV or playing a video game in the den than outside exploring nature. According to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC a child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike.

The Kaiser study found that 8 to 10-year-old children spend an average of six hours per day watching television, playing video games and using computers. Most alarmingly, TV ratings show kids watch more during the summer. If you are a parent, what types of summer vacation plans have you made? Will you be exploring nature with your kids?

In the 1960s there were 27 hours of children's programming a week on the major three networks. Most of the programming was shown simultaneously on Saturday mornings. Currently there are over 14 television networks that broadcast programing aimed at children 24/7.

The average American home has 2.86 TV sets, which is roughly 18 percent higher than in the year 2000 (2.43 sets per home), and 43 percent higher than in 1990 (2.0 sets). In America, there are currently more televisions per home than human beings. This is disconcerting to me.

On average, children under the age of 8 spend over 90 minutes a day watching television or DVDs. Nearly 33 percent of American children live in a household where the television is on all or most of the time. Children between the ages 8-18 years old watch an average of three hours of television a day. On average, 61 percent of children under two use some type of screen technology and 43 percent watch television every day.

The relationship between kids and their bikes is especially telling. In 1995, 68 percent of children ages 7 to 11 rode a bike at least six times a year. By 2005 only 47 percent of children rode bicycles. The sales of children's bikes fell from 12.4 million in 2000 to 9.8 million in 2004, a 21 percent decline, according to Bicycle Industry and Retailer News, an industry magazine.

Conclusion: Transcendentalism in the 21st Century

The 1836 essay Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the essence of the 19th century transcendentalism movement in Massachussets. Among the transcendentalists' core beliefs was that spirituality could be found in a connection to Nature. I believe that 2014 is a perfect time to revisit the ideas of transcendentalism and look for ways to adapt these philosophies into our modern lives.

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was raised a Transcendentalist. Alcottt often described the passion for physical activity she had as a child. Alcott had an ecstatic connection to running that seemed deeply embedded in her cells. She loved to run through the woods as a child. Louisa May Alcott once said:

Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy ... My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.

I know the times have changed, but Louisa May Alcott’s mom was wise to understand the importance of physical activity on a child's developing the body, brain and spirit. Parents of today could benefit by adhering to her wisdom and allowing their children to "run wild" a little more and "helicopter" parent a little less.

Gretel Van Wieren believes that societally we could see exponential problems if kids continue their technology habits and lack of time spent outdoors. In a press release she concludes, "This is the first generation that's significantly plugged in to a different extent ... and so what does this mean? Modern life has created a distance between humans and nature that now we're realizing isn't good in a whole host of ways. So it's a scary question: How will this affect our children and how are we going to respond?"

If you’d like to read more on the benefits of playing outside and physical fitness throughout a lifespan, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

More from Christopher Bergland
More from Psychology Today