Outdoor activities for kids
Featured in: Health  |  November 18, 2016

The Health Benefits of Outdoor Activities for Kids

Studies show that playing outdoors and spending time in nature helps produce happy, well-adjusted kids.

By Violet Snow   |   Edited by Brian Levine

Freewheeling outdoor activities for kids, from building stick shelters to cloud gazing, is much less available to today’s youth than it once was. As we mentioned in a recent blog, many kids prefer staying inside with their electronics instead of playing outdoors. Journalist Richard Louv coined this preference as the “natural deficit disorder,” blaming a multitude of influences such as loss of green space, parents’ obsession with safety, educational pressures, and, most obviously, the fascination with electronic media.

Why outdoor activities are good for kids

Numerous studies show that problems such as obesity, depression and ADHD improve when kids are exposed to nature. Cornell University researchers found that children with ready access to nature handled stress more successfully, while scientists at the University of Southern California found that children who had park space within 500 meters of home tended to be less overweight.

Children with ready access to nature handled stress more successfully.

A recent study at the University of Illinois helps explain why outdoor activities for kids is so important for their ability to focus and feel energized. It’s based on the attention restoration theory and how natural settings often contain elements that engage involuntary attention, which allows directed attention to rest and recover.  The overall finding is that 

During this study, children with ADHD were taken on guided walks for 20 minutes through three different settings: a park, a quiet downtown area, and a residential neighborhood. The idea was that while these settings were all outdoors, only one allowed the kids to spend time in nature. The children’s capacity for concentration was tested after every walk, and the findings were eye-opening. The children all scored higher after walking in the park than after the other outings, which showed that being in a natural setting was most beneficial to them.

Giving them the encouragement they need

Nature’s regenerative effects can be observed in all children, but they often need encouragement. The second edition of Last Child in the Woods (2008) lists 100 suggested outdoor activities for kids, which include:

  • Buying a truckload of dirt to play in
  • Going for a family walk during a full moon
  • Buying field guides to birds
  • Planting a butterfly garden
  • Studying animal tracking

These are just a few of the great ways to get your child 

The key takeaway here, per Andrea Taylor, PhD at University of Illinois, is that these study results offer clear implications for guiding public policy. “We have to make nature accessible”, she says. “It’s not enough to have a massive park six blocks away. There should be small pockets of natural area near the home.”

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