By Dr. Keili Mistovich, MD, MPH
Children live in a world dominated by indoor activities and screen time. With so many parents now working from home and unable to send their children to school or daycare, many families struggle to balance screen time with finding safe activities for their children.
Children are spending less and less time outdoors. This is not without consequence: their brains are suffering. Rates of childhood depression, anxiety, and obesity are skyrocketing. Children increasingly struggle with maintaining focus and attention both for school and other activities.
Dose of Vitamin N
Spending time in nature—or Vitamin N—is one of the most important ways to improve happiness, especially for children. Medical peer-reviewed studies have found that sending children outside to engage in play has numerous long- and short-term benefits. Not only does time in nature promote physical activity, but it also fosters countless brain-building skills, including intellect, curiosity, and creativity.
When kids play outside, it supports prosocial behaviors, such as empathy and problem-solving skills. Finally, outdoor play provides for improved emotional regulation to reduce anxiety and stress. In short, playing with other children and exploring the outdoors allows kids to slow down and engage their senses, build confidence, and have fun.
Let’s break this down and discuss the benefits of being outside in more detail.
Nature Increases Physical Activity
Playing outdoors is one of the easiest ways to get kids moving. When children are outdoors, their imaginations ignite. They’ll naturally start to make up games to play and find all types of ways to engage in their surroundings and move their bodies. Studies show that children who spend more time outside are healthier, less likely to become overweight, and even have improved sleep!
Nature Builds Intellect
Children are born scientists. From a very early age, kids learn about the world through experimentation. They’ll make hypotheses and test out their ideas—even without realizing they’re doing it. As they ask questions, they learn about biology, physics, and even chemistry!
During nature time, kids learn about plants and insects. They learn about the habitats of worms and slugs when they dig in the mud and how vegetables grow when planting a garden. They’ll experience gravity and friction by throwing an acorn in the air or launching rocks into the water.
Studies have shown that when compared to learning in a traditional classroom, children who learn in nature are more excited about school and even have improved reading and writing skills!
Nature Develops Prosocial Behavior
When children play outside and engage in activities together—especially when there’s minimal adult oversight and interference—they learn to problem-solve and play in new and different ways. Children will work together, share ideas, develop new rules, and solve problems on their own.
Interestingly, when in nature, it has even been shown that children are more inclined to show empathy towards others, including more caring behaviors when other children are upset or hurt. Furthermore, they also care more about the well-being of our environment itself.
Nature Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Being outside gives children the freedom to express themselves and release their emotions. The saying sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy could not be truer. Sunshine is one of the main sources of Vitamin D for our bodies. A daily dose of sunshine provides the Vitamin D necessary for many of the essential functions of the body and brain.
Vitamin D plays an integral role in:
- Fending off depression and anxiety
- Building strong muscles and bones
- Developing our immune systems and keeping us healthy
Nature Improves Focus and Attention
Being in nature is very stimulating to a child’s brain. From the smell of the grass to the feel of sand between their toes, all of the senses are engaged and active. With each new experience, children will inherently speed up or slow down to engage in their environment.
Children may run circles through an open field or stop to intently watch a ladybug crawl down a blade of grass. Even children who seem to be driven by endless energy will slow down and participate in activities that often seem impossible to imagine when that same child is inside.
Research has found that children with a diagnosis of ADHD are calmer and experience an improvement in their ability to focus after spending increased time playing outside.
Nature Activities for Kids
Need some ideas to help your children get started? Send your kids out the door on their own for unstructured play or try these more structured ideas for some interactive fun with adults! The key is getting your child outside every day.
- Send your kids on a scavenger hunt! Create a list of items for your kids to find in nature. This can work both in your backyard or by taking a hike through your local park.
- Play with a water table in summer or make a winter snow table. Step2’s well-loved Rain Showers Splash Pond Water Table™ has the versatility to be used all year long! In the winter, this durable table can be used as a snow table for building structures, creating ski slopes, and for making snow cones! Use it as a water table in the summer to let your kids explore all of the properties of water. For example, teach them about:
- Buoyancy: Why do some things float while others sink?
- Gravity and Friction: Why will objects slide along the water’s surface? What happens as you pour water from different heights or from different types of containers?
- Displacement: How can items change the water level when they are submerged?
- Create a treasure map! Have your kids hide a treasure in the backyard, then draw a map to guide other children to that object. This activity teaches spatial awareness, cardinal directions, how to use a compass, and the names of the various plants or trees found in your environment. It even gets their bodies moving by running through the yard during the search!
- Plant a garden—outdoors or inside! Get their hands dirty by planting a garden in your backyard or even inside near a window during the winter. Bring your Step2 Naturally Playful® Sand Table™ inside to enjoy some nature! This sand table is the perfect size to fill with potting soil and grow your own plants. Try herbs or even start some vegetables and then move the seedlings outside in the spring!
- Build a fort! Have your children collect objects from nature and use them to create! Use sticks to build a fort or add some flowers and twigs to an existing structure, such as one of Step2’s outdoor playhouses. No need to bring these sturdy playhouses inside during the winter—they’ll hold up throughout any season!
- Take a walk in the rain! Grab your raincoat, boots, and umbrella and go puddle jumping! Let you kids get dirty—those clothes can always be washed!
A daily dose of Vitamin N is exactly what the doctor ordered. The benefits are clear—happier, healthier children! Time to get outside and enjoy some nature time!
What are your favorite nature activities for kids? What activities are you most excited to try? Let us know in the comments below!
Dr. Keili Mistovich, MD, MPH, is a mom, pediatrician, and fierce advocate for children. She earned a Doctor of Medicine degree and Master’s of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Keili graduated from the Pediatric Residency Program at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and was on the clinical faculty at Pitt. She also cared for children at the nationally renowned Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. Dr. Keili is now a co-founder of Greater Cleveland Pediatrics, a new practice with a unique and personalized approach to patient care for all families.