Unstructured time outdoors, with limited adult interaction can actually have a number of positive benefits for children. This type of free time can greatly enrich their lives by enhancing both physical and mental health, fostering creativity and a sense of adventure, and by building the critical thinkers needed to succeed in tomorrow’s world.
A Child’s Health on Nature
The many physical benefits of spending time outdoors are well known. Studies on both adults and children have linked outdoor activity to lower risks of high blood pressure, insufficient bone development, back problems, and poor eyesight. Contrarily, a sedentary lifestyle with lots of screen time tends to increase the risk of these problems and cause many more. The rise in childhood obesity has also been linked to a general lack of physical activity. Children that spend most of their free time outside are far less likely to become obese in their childhood, or at any point in their adult lives.
Beyond physical health benefits, outdoor activity has been linked to much better mental health in children as well. Time spent in green spaces has been shown to decrease stress in kids, which surprisingly has been on the rise for the past couple decades. Studies have also linked free play time outdoors to better concentration in children in other aspects of life. Some suggest that outdoor activity could be a significant way in which to help control ADHD.
Exploration, Development, and Creativity
If the physical and mental health benefits are not enough, time spent outdoors could actually help children become capable adults later in life. Outdoor activity offers much more freedom for creative thinking than many of the things that happen indoors. Children can pick up a stick and become a knight, dig a tunnel to China, or build a fort. All of this creative play actually teaches kids to think independently and create their own meaning in the place they are interacting.
Learning in this way also teaches children a great deal about social interactions and leadership as well. Kids that spend time outdoors tend to act less aggressively towards other children, and some work suggests they may develop stronger leadership skills. Some elementary schools have taken these findings so seriously that they have converted into ‘outdoor schools’ and many claim that they are indeed seeing more well behaved, interested, creative, children graduate from their classrooms.
Preparing for Tomorrow
There is little doubt that our society and lifestyles have led to some serious problems that our children will inevitably have to work to rectify. One of which is the environmental concerns brought about by a changing climate. In preparing our children to tackle this challenge, one fact as stuck out: children that are exposed to “wild outdoor activities” before the age of 11 are far more likely to care about the outdoor environment and participate in taking care of it as adults.
Many of the most innovative educational institutions in the United States are developing leadership based environmental education modules that are helping students to understand that there are many facets to solving the environmental problems that our society is facing. Critical thinking skills as well as creative problem solving and the ability to work well with diverse groups of people will be a must in working towards these goals.
This summer, consider sending the kids outdoors. The physical and mental health advantages are profound and the numerous additional developmental benefits are unparalleled. Furthermore, doing so could set them on the path of working to solve some of our most challenging issues. Their grown-up selves will thank you.