When my 10-month-old daughter is indoors, her ability to preoccupy herself is limited to one hour at the most, and usually half of that.
But when I take my curious little human outside, wonder and curiosity shine out of her eyes; complete calm and quiet come over her little soul.
Contrast also her hatred for her car seat to her love of her stroller. She can bask in the sun, watch the world, and feel the breezes through her toes for hours at a time in her stroller. Five minutes in her car seat is too much—no, one minute is too much. But outside, whether in or out of her stroller, she is content and curious. There is so much to explore!
What exactly are the benefits of outdoor play for children? Why does my daughter seem to prefer being outside to being indoors so much?
Here are a few.
Engages All Five Senses
Indoors, preschoolers might be watching videos or playing video games. Even babies less than one are subjected to iPad and smartphone entertainment by necessity in today’s world—my own included! They are using only two of their senses when they do so. They are at an age, however, where development of all five senses is crucial.
Outside, they are hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling, and even tasting all at once (is that flower edible?). And what’s more, they are often using their senses in multiple ways. They can feel the grass on their toes, feel the wind in their hair, feel the warm sun on their face, smell lilacs and mulch, hear other children playing, birds calling, the wind rustling, the water rippling, see the sun create thousands of little lights on the faceted surface of the water, observe shadows and sunshine, rocks, animals, and birds. (More on this).
Increases Attention Span
There is hope that something as beautiful as increasing children’s exposure to nature (even in the form of having a view of grass and trees from the window of their classroom or bedroom) can aid in increasing their attention span. For all children, “natural environments assist in recovery from attention fatigue,” and allows the attention spans of children to return to a state of directed attention.
Yes, children do deal with stress. Living in high-nature conditions reduced the levels of psychological distress in children. Nature is healing and peaceful. It’s calming. Many of us have experienced this on a personal level or seen it in our children. If my daughter is having an off time, I often simply take her outside and watch the magic of nature calm her.
Who doesn’t want their children to sleep better? Sunshine tells us when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. “Sunshine helps to produce quality melatonin, a hormone that helps to induce sleep.” (I’ve definitely observed this in my child!) If you want your child to sleep better, get them outside in the sun as much as possible (using appropriate protection from direct sun).
Teaches More Self-Direction
Children who spend much of their playtime outside learn to be self-directed in their play. They’re curious. They go investigate things. They become a participator and not an observer. The trees and the grass, the little bugs and jumping bunny rabbits all invite curious minds, feet, and hands. In contrast, many children indoors end up watching TV or playing video games.
Bonus Benefit: Enhances Social Life
Because outdoor play often involves groups of children (the inviting playground, the outdoor family social event), children who play outside often were found (according to one study) to have twice as many friends and, therefore, feel less lonely.
I hope this inspires you to get outside with your kids and create a safe and beautiful outdoor space for them as close to your house as possible. You might also want to investigate nearby family-friendly parks and events and take advantage of them more often. Local municipalities often organize fun-for-family events in the park, giving you a chance to meet other families and taking the responsibility of arranging engaging activities off your shoulders, giving you and your children more time to relax and enjoy the company of others.
Here’s to healthier, happier children (and parents)!