- Spending time in nature has a wide range of physical, cognitive, and mental health benefits, including lower cortisol levels and heart rate.
- Outdoor play has distinct advantages for children compared to indoor play, including increased interactive-dramatic play.
- To increase kids' access to outside play, make going outside part of the family routine or host a playdate at a nearby green space.
In The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self,1 Michael Easter provides overwhelming evidence about the affect that being outdoors, specifically in nature (and preferably doing hard things without the distractions of modern devices) has on our overall well-being.
The focus of his book was almost exclusively on adults, but as addressed here, there are strong connections between nature, outdoor play, and positive developmental outcomes that benefit children as well. It turns out that opting outside matters a lot when it comes to facilitating powerful play experiences.
The Power of Outside
Time spent in nature has long been assumed to have benefits for mental and physical health. In Japan, there’s even a specific name for it: Shinrin-yoku, meaning “forest bathing,” describes the practice of going out in nature and simply taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of the ground and surroundings.2 There is now research to back up the health claims: Shinrin-yoku has been associated with lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure, among other benefits.3
While simply being outside in nature seems to have a range of benefits, what does this have to do with play? Researchers have found a number of key attributes associated with outdoor play specifically:
- More complex play patterns. When children engage in free play opportunities outdoors, there is an increase in “interactive-dramatic play” compared to indoor settings.4 In this type of play, children engage with each other. They often assign roles or rules (such as pretending to be pirates, fairy princesses, and firefighters), which is important for social-emotional development and creativity. The fact that outdoor play is associated with an uptick in social interactions with other children (including making new friends) is important for key social-emotional skills such as initiating play, negotiating roles, regulating emotions, interpreting others’ reactions, and navigating conflicts. And because outdoor play promotes “dramatic play” and incorporates fantasy, it requires “more complex cognitive skills” than constructive or functional play.5,6
- Increased physical activity. Increases in outdoor play are also correlated with overall increases in physical activity and healthy weight gain (vs. obesity)7 compared to less active indoor play. Children tend to move around more when they’re playing outside than when they’re playing indoors, and increased physical activity is correlated with cognitive development, including enhanced reading levels and arithmetic skills.8,9,10,11 Additionally, the higher levels of physical activity observed during outdoor play are associated with executive functioning skills, specifically inhibitory control, which is important for moderating one’s attention and behavior in response to stimuli).12
- General well-being. As described in Shinrin-yoku, simply being outdoors during play can lead to an overall increase in the sense of well-being (see forest bathing, above) and to other potential benefits, including exposure to vitamin D; fresh air with lowered risk of transmitting some viruses compared to indoor play; and cognitive benefits, such as observing the patterns found in nature, including fractals.
Declining “Outside” Play
While there is convincing evidence that being in nature and playing outside can have very positive impacts, unfortunately we are, on the whole, spending less and less time outdoors. Roughly half of preschoolers do not play outside on a daily basis,13 and the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors.14 Researchers have documented a steady decline in outdoor activities in children ages 6 to 12,15 and in 2005, Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder,” a nonmedical condition, to capture the alienation of humans from nature.16
There are many reasons for the decline we see in outdoor play, and they span a wide range of themes, including safety fears (heightened in the '80s and ‘90 specifically around child abductions); increased use of devices that have changed dominant play from outdoor to indoor and active to more passive; declines in recess and physical education in schools; more structured activities during “free time,” such as music lessons and tutoring; limited access to available outdoor space due to urbanization and lack of funding to keep parks clean and open; and climate impacts leading to extreme weather and poorer air quality.
Small Steps to Opting Outside
Simply being (and playing!) outside can support so many benefits, even if those outdoor spaces lack green space per se. For instance, physical activity (and therefore correlated physical and cognitive outcomes) appear to be enhanced outdoors relative to indoor play, even without the specific benefits of being in nature. So even if playing in the natural world is not easily accessible, opting outside can be positive. Having said that, opportunities to spend time in nature can be tremendously beneficial for children and adults.
Here are some small steps you can take to help children opt outside more often:
- Make going outside part of the family routine, such as a stroll through the neighborhood after dinner.
- Visit a local park and create a scavenger hunt to encourage your child to run around looking for elements from nature (e.g., leaves, rocks of a certain color or size, sticks with unique shapes).
- Host a playdate at a nearby green space rather than at your house. Encourage the children to invent their own games and interact with each other with minimal grownup involvement.
- Utilize technology to enhance outdoor play, such as stargazing apps that help kids learn the names of constellations or plant-identifying apps that help them learn the attributes of the flora near them.
- Try Shinrin-yoku together: Find some trees, take off your shoes, feel the ground beneath your toes, touch the bark, smell the air, listen for the sounds of the birds, and practice silence for as long as is appropriate based on your child’s age and abilities. Compare what you felt, heard, saw, and smelled afterward, and maybe turn that into a drawing when you get home to help codify the experience.
- Use sidewalk chalk to create an outdoor play space complete with art, hopscotch, four-square, or other activities appropriate for your child’s age and interests.
Wishing you all some playful learning.
(1) Easter, M. (2021). The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self: (Rodale Books).
(2) Li, Q. (May 1, 2018). ‘Forest Bathing’ is great for your health: Here’s how to do it. Time online. Retrieved from https://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/ on October 25, 2022.
(3) Jin Park, B., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y., (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments across 24 forests in Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, 18.
(4) Shim, S.Y., Herwig, J.E., & Shelley M. (2001). Preschoolers’ play behaviors with peers in classroom and playground settings. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 149-163.
(5) Rubin, K.H., & Maioni, T.L. (1975). Play preference and its relationship to egocentrism, popularity and classification skills in preschoolers. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 21(3), 171-179.
(6) Rubin, K.H., Watson, K.S., & Jambor, T.W. (1978). Free-play behaviors in preschool and kindergarten children. Child Development, 49(2), 534-536.
(7) Cleland, V., Crawford, D., Baur, L.A., Hume, C., Timperio, A., & Salmon, J. (2008). A prospective examination of children’s time spent outdoors, objectively measured physical activity and overweight. International Journal of Obesity, 32(11), 1685.
(8) Carlson, S.A., Fulton, J.E., Lee, S.M., Maynard, L.M., Brown, D.R., Kohl III, H.W., & Dietz, W.H. (2008). Physical education and academic achievement in elementary school: Data from the early childhood longitudinal study. American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 721-727.
(9) Davis, C.L., Tomporowski, P.D., Boyle, C.A., Waller, J.L., Miller, P.H., Naglieri, J.A., & Gregosky, M. (2007). Effects of aerobic exercise on overweight children’s cognitive functioning: A randomized controlled trial. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 78(5), 510-519.
(10) Davis, C.L., Tomporowski, P.D., McDowell, J.E., Austin, B.P., Miller, P.H., Yanasak, N.E., … & Naglieri, J.A. (2011). Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children; A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology, 30(1), 91-98.
(11) Haapala, E.A., Vaisto, J., Lintu, N., Westgate, K., Ekelund, U., Poikkeus, A.M., … & Lakka, T.A. (2017). Physical activity and sedentary time in relation to academic achievement in children. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 20(6), 583-589.
(12) Chang, Y.K., Tsai, Y.J., Chen, T.T., & Hung, T.M. (2013). The impacts of coordinative exercise on executive function in kindergarten children: An ERP study. Experimental Brain Research, 225(2), 187-196.
(13) Tandon, P.S., Zhou, C., & Christakis, D.A. (2012). Frequency of parent-supervised outdoor play of US preschool-aged children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(8), 707-712.
(14) Klepeis, N.E., et al., (2001). The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Epidemiology, 11, 231-252.
(15) Hoffereth, S.L. (2009). Changes in American children’s time - 1997 to 2003. Electronic International Journal Time Use Research, 6(1), 26-47.
(16) Louve, R. (2019) What is Nature-Deficit Disorder? Retrieved from https://richardlouv.com/blog/what-is-nature-deficit-disorder/ on October 25, 2022.