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Being and Playing Outdoors Matters for Young Children

How to help a child re-engage with nature.

Key points

  • Artificial light generated indoors leaves children without enough Vitamin D and can disrupt sleep cycles.
  • Children who do not spend enough time outside are at risk for vision problems, specifically myopia (near-sightedness).
  • Exposure to green space leads to improvements in working memory and attention in children.

Sam’s preschool friends were shocked into silence when he reached out and touched the tentacles of the small octopus laying on the Treasures Table. It was brought in by the teacher’s fisherman husband for the first show-and-tell since COVID-19.

The teacher asked Sam to describe how it felt. “It’s cold and kind of rubbery.” After a moment he added, “It doesn’t hurt… I wish it could move.” The teacher asked if other children would like to touch it, but no takers. He asked the teacher to take his picture with it and help him write a story about it. “My grandpa and I find things at the beach, and I want to show him.”

Sam’s family worked to get him outside during the pandemic as much as possible. “He trends toward super active,” reported his dad. He added, “Time outside helps Sam settle back into himself. It also helps him get to sleep better. It’s a big bang for the buck.” But not everyone had an adventurous nature-promoting family. Many preschool kids in this country did not have the opportunity to spend time outdoors over the last year-plus, and that is a problem – for them and for their health.

Richard Louv’s ‘Last Child in the Woods’ told us how big a problem it is in this tech-swollen, de-natured generation, documenting the evidence base for rises in obesity, mood and behavior issues, and contributing to attentional problems in its offspring. Over the last two decades, children’s understanding of their place in the natural world has caved. It has become something to wear, ignore, or watch on a screen. As they spend less time outside, their sensory intake - social, physical, and mental - shrinks, and they quite literally increase their risk of becoming nearsighted by over-dosing on the ‘close work’ of being indoors. Quite the metaphor.

Trading the artificial light of indoors for sunlight leaves children without enough Vitamin D and can disrupt sleep cycles. The brain sets its clock by the sun; not the grid. It’s about a lot more than fresh air. Nature-based experiences are free from peer pressure and relationship hassles, evoke new language, help kids manage stress better, and can lower some impulse-driven behavior problems. Green space outperforms the fenced-in playground. Exposure to green space leads to improvements in working memory and attention in children.

Thankfully, many parents and grandparents have a yearning to ‘re-nature’ thanks to a vague, pre-digitized memory of unplugged play. Here are six new and unique outdoor activities that parents can do to help their child re-engage with nature:

  1. Check out the K-12 ‘No Child Left Inside’ movement that is growing nationally, with local resources and ideas to help ‘nature up’ your child’s play.
  2. If you have access to grass or dirt, put down a square-foot flat stone or piece of plywood, leave it for a week, and have a magnifying glass ready to meet the critters that come to live under it.
  3. Maintain a bird bath or a bird feeder and keep track of who comes, and who doesn’t when it’s dry.
  4. Take a hike for the discovery, not the distance. Bring snacks, water, specimen bag, and a bug box with magnifying lid. End with tick check.
  5. Buy an inexpensive tent, put it up in the back yard with the help of your child and leave it for whatever happens in it to happen.
  6. Raise a butterfly from egg-caterpillar-chrysalis. Take photographs and track the stages in a dated journal, which should be kept by your child. This is their journey. You just need to help them get back on the road. This is my favorite limited-space project.