Nature play helps children develop cognitive and social-emotional skills.
In this post you’ll find the physical health benefits first and then we’ll dig into some super interesting mental health benefits, PLUS, all the way at the bottom, you’ll find 5 REMEMBER ME! Recommendations: little snippets that you must remember to share with your mama and papa friends and family. 😁
Feel free to skip around, I don’t mind 😉 Let’s begin…
When I was young, I was a horse girl and my most favorite thing was to lazily walk the trails with my trusty steed, Risky (she was quite the opposite of her name!). I loved the smell of the sweet molasses oats she ate. I relished in those moments of lying back while riding bareback, with my head bobbing side to side as we walked along the trail. The warm Santa Ana winds of Southern California would sweep that sweet, and sort of tangy, eucalyptus scent across my nose. I would stare up into the fluffy white clouds dotting the deep blue sky and feel connected with my best childhood friend and the pulse of life around us: feeling dirty, felling free, feeling that peaceful “I’m home” feeling. This was my childhood in nature. And, at the time, I never quite realized how amazing it was. I never really thought about how it may shape my life. Actually, I didn’t even think about myself being “in nature”. I just was and it was awesome!
I can see how those times drew me into the mountain forests in our later home in Oregon and into a field of study that took me into the wilderness. The place I sought in my most difficult times in life was outside. I went for the forests and the hills, I hiked the mountain trails, sat near creeks, and learned how to enjoy the cold, yet magically sparkly winter-time snow. Actually, the most peaceful scene I can recall in my memory is the mountain trees and rugged land covered in pure, white, shimmering snow. With the immense amount of peace that I drew in from these incredibly majestic surroundings, I found my own peace and my own path to follow, spiritually and academically. I consciously made choices in my life that would put me closer to nature.
While I may have lost touch with that closeness over my more recent adult years, as I have moved to cities and haven’t had such easy access to the wild and free mountains and valleys of my youth, I am still completely drawn towards nature and I wish with my entire being to impart this time and appreciation to my children.
These days, I’ve been even more conscious about spending time in nature, using nature in learning, and education in general as my elder daughter is at an age to really dive into exploring and understanding ladybugs, butterflies, flowers, ants, and (a most mysterious piece of nature) black holes! With this conscious nature pondering, I decided to apply a little academia to it (after all, science has also influenced me greatly!) to see what I could find in the scientific literature about the affects of contact with nature on children. Now, there are certain physical benefits that I pretty much knew I would find, but surprisingly, there were a number of cognitive benefits as well! (Hmm, now I want to take nature learning to a whole new level ;) Are you ready to read what I found out?
Physical Health Benefits for Children from Contact with Nature:
More Vitamin D production:
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Vitamin D. It’s that sunshine vitamin that is made in our sun-kissed skin. Vitamin D is a super duper important nutrient: it helps our bodies absorb calcium and, get this, recent research shows that it plays a big role in preventing diseases like diabetes, glucose intolerance, and hypertension! There’s more, vitamin D helps manage the production of neurotransmitters, including the well-known serotonin and dopamine, which means that healthy levels of vitamin D lowers the risk of depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Okay, I’ll stop myself there; the info on the variety of ways Vitamin D helps our bodies stay healthy is overwhelming, so, guys, make sure your getting your daily dose of sunshine! (Check Resources below for more information.)
Healthy Weight and a Stable BMI:
This one is kind of self-explanatory, right? Most kids going outside with lots of space will run and jump and play = more exercise = healthier weight and body mass index (BMI, amount of body fat based on height and weight). Do you want to know what kind of outdoor space is better? Spaces that are more diverse; they’ll have trees, shrubbery, rocks, water, hills and open spaces and maybe even a slide and monkey bars.
Increased physical activity:
I did mention this above, but here are a couple more ways that more exercise helps your children out: they get better sleep at night and develop stronger muscles and bones.
Decreased asthma and allergies:
This benefit has been a little tricky to understand. Some scientists were comparing how many children had asthma or allergies with how many trees they lived by, but they were getting results that showed MORE allergies with more trees (pollen, oh pollen, how you bother some poor souls). Now, some other clever scientists found that (how I love results like this) children hanging around a diverse array of microbial life present in natural environments (i.e., bacteria!) had fewer problems with asthma and allergies (hooray, so many bacteria are good for you!). However, let’s keep in mind that studies like this haven’t been done in cities with high levels of pollution: pollution is not good for respiratory and immune system health L which is a serious consideration in our current home in Northern India.
Improved motor coordination and balance:
Yeah, just watch my kids run, spin, balance on curbs, jump off curbs, repeat those a few thousand times, climb up hills, steps, ladders, trees. What else? What does your little one do outside? By the way, did you know that strong gross motor development (think whole body movements) supports fine motor development (think tying shoes, writing, and eating peas off of a spoon without dropping them All. Over. The floor!!)
Mental Health Benefits for Children from Contact with Nature (this part is so cool!):
Physical benefits are pretty obvious, but mental benefits are definitely not as talked about as reasons for heading outside. I think you’ll be surprised by these findings:
Better Concentration and Attention Span and Less Impulsiveness:
When children have more greenery, like grass and trees and shrubs, around them or even a view of trees from their windows (either at home or at school), they have better concentration, attention span, and less impulsive behavior. Isn’t that just awesome? Plus, these improvements in cognitive abilities were seen in children that struggle with these abilities, such as children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
Better Stats in School:
Students who went to schools with green spaces that included trees and shrubs in their play and outdoor areas had higher graduation rates, higher grades and more merit achievements. Just, wow! I hope you remember this when you’re looking for a school for your child.
When researchers looked at the behavior of two groups of children, one that visited the woods and built a cabin for a day and another that visited a town, they found that children visiting the woods had better concentration and were more cooperative. Children visiting the town were less attentive and more impulsive. (Incredible, right?) Even children with disorders that negatively affect impulsiveness and cooperation showed improvement with time in nature.
Imaginative Play and Social-Emotional Development:
Playing in natural and “wild” spaces, like unmanaged patches of knee-high weeds allows children to feel free, comfortable, and relaxed. Children often engage in imaginative play and role playing in this setting, and this is so important because it gives them a chance to act out adult-like scenarios in a safe, imaginative setting. These role-playing scenarios can be with several children and involve cooperation (that ever-elusive trait!) and problem solving, which really helps their social-emotional development as they prepare for the real world. One researcher wrote, and I find this concept SO intriguing, that in playgrounds with mostly man-made play structures and lawns, children use physical strength to create a social hierarchy. While in “vegetative rooms” present in play areas with different sizes of trees, shrubs, and other green wonders, there is more imaginative play, and in this scenario, the social hierarchy is based more on “a child’s command of language and their creativity and inventiveness in imagining what the space might be” (Herrington and Studtmann, 1998).
This last point is more or less considered a benefit depending on your own personal stance on care and stewardship for the natural environment and your take on sustainability. I, for one, whole-heartedly support small, everyday steps that increase sustainable living and a general respect and harmony in living with both the dangers and wonders of the natural world. I came across the term affiliation, which is the quality obtained by spending time and play in nature; I think of it as connection. Regular contact with nature during the younger years creates an affiliation, a connection, with nature, and with this connection children grow into adults that desire more time in nature and act in ways that encourage a compassionate connection with nature and other species.
There you have it, you are now armed with some facts to support, and hopefully inspire, your next trip outside. Before I leave you with some key actionable take-aways, I wonder if you can think back to your favorite moments in childhood. Were they outside? Here is one of my favorites: as a child, myself and a few horse-loving friends, used to play horse in one particular spot of the playground of our elementary school; we would gallop, trot, pretend to leap hurdles, and feed each other carrots (a horse’s favorite treat!). I can recall the scene so easily; it was a square shaped grassy area with three medium sized trees spaciously spread across the field. One side of the field was edged by the asphalt playground (a place I tended to avoid) and the other was edged by a large, unmanaged hillside. Where did you play?
Finally, my friend, here are my 5 REMEMBER ME! Recommendations from this information:
1. Spend time outside as often as possible.
2. Seek out outdoor spaces that are DIVERSE with trees, shrubs, water, rocks, hills, and open spaces.
3. Seek out “wild” unmanaged areas for free play (digging, constructing, observing critters). This could even be an unmanaged corner of a park with shrubs, weeds, or a patch of mud.
4. Take a few minutes to observe and notice the natural world every day (look at clouds, weather, and stars; feel and smell flowers, trees and leaves; follow insects, birds, and animals).
5. Seek out housing and schools with easy access to green spaces with a diversity of vegetation.
1. Chawla, Louise. 2015. Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature, Vol 30(4), 433-452.
4. Early Childhood. 2016. Essays in Urban Environmental Education. Ed. Alex Kruss, Marianne E. Kransy.
5. Herrington and Studtmann. 1998. Landscape Interventions: New Directions for the Design of Children’s Outdoor Play Environments. Landscape and Urban Planning. Vol 42, 191-205.