Many children don’t get enough outdoor time, but spending time in nature is important for your child’s development. Urbanization and advances in technology have contributed to what some refer to as “nature-deficit disorder” — though not a true medical diagnosis, author and journalist Richard Louv coined this term to refer to the negative consequences of children spending less time outdoors. According to this theory, spending too much time indoors can negatively affect children’s cognitive development as well as their physical and emotional health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than one hour of screen time for children over 2 years of age and at least an hour of physical activity each day. But with many parents relying on tablets and TV for entertainment, children are spending much more time indoors and looking at screens than recommended. This can affect their attention span, concentration, physical health, and emotional wellbeing.
If this sounds like your child, it’s never too late to get outside and spend more time in nature together. Doing so can counteract some of the negative effects of screen time and improve their overall wellbeing. And while any quality time you spend together with your child away from a screen is great, outdoor play is especially beneficial to your child’s health.
What is nature play?
As the name suggests, nature play is when a child has access to natural areas to explore and play. While traditional playgrounds can be a great way to get your child outdoors, natural play spaces connect children to the elements of nature, such as rocks, dirt, streams, plants, and trees. This can include digging areas, gardens, woods, or streams as well as constructed areas that include natural materials for children to climb and explore.
Nature play allows a child to engage with nature in an open-ended, hands-on way. This can include experiencing different types of weather as well. As long as a child is dressed appropriately, they can play in the rain, sun, or snow.
What are the benefits of playing in nature?
Nature play allows children to use their natural curiosity and engage with the world around them. They can experiment and ask questions in a way they might not at a traditional playground, developing their creativity and imagination. This can have a positive impact on their cognitive development, physical health, mental health, social skills, and their connection with nature.
1. Cognitive development
Spending time outdoors can improve concentration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Believe it or not, studies have found that students who spend more time in nature actually do better in school than children in more academically-focused school settings. Even just seeing nature through the windows at school has been shown to improve test scores and graduation rates. So, if you want your child to do well in school, allow them plenty of time to play outdoors.
2. Physical health
The open-endedness of outside play allows plenty of movement that will encourage motor skill development and help to prevent obesity. Children have even more opportunities to work on skills like balance and coordination in natural areas than on man-made playgrounds. Climbing on rocks and logs, building with sticks and stones, and digging in the dirt are all great activities for developing your child’s fine and gross motor skills. More time indoors also can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, which time in nature helps to counteract.
3. Mental health
Being in nature is a great way to ease anxiety, stress, anger, and other negative feelings. Studies have found that children who spend more time in nature tend to have overall better mental health and are able to handle stress better than children who spend less time in nature. Nature play can also improve attention span and be helpful for managing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
4. Social skills
Without the limitations of an indoor environment or man-made structures, playing in nature provides children with an opportunity to get creative and use their imaginations. If they are given time to play outdoors with their friends, their social skills will benefit from this kind of setting as well. Allow your child and their friends to lead the activities and solve problems on their own, so they can interact and socialize in creative ways.
5. Connection with nature
Children who spend more time outside have an increased awareness of their environment and empathy for the natural world. This often encourages stewardship of nature and the environment well into adulthood. If you want to teach your child to care for the earth, spending plenty of time in nature is a good way to do that.
Mustapa, Nor Diyana, et al. “Benefits of Nature on Children’s Developmental Needs: A Review.” Asian Journal of Behavioural Studies, vol. 3, no. 12, 2018, p. 31., doi:10.21834/ajbes.v3i12.120.
Smith-Lossiah, Sharon, “Nature Play For Urban Elementary Preschoolers: Benefits To Their Development And Connectedness To The Environment” (2019). School of Education Student Capstone Projects. 277.
“Where We Stand: Screen Time.” HealthyChildren.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Nov. 2016, www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Where-We-Stand-TV-Viewing-Time.aspx.
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.