When my third child was born, I truly discovered the magic of the outdoors. A stay-at-home mom with a five-year old, an almost-three-year old, and an infant, I relied on the outdoors to Save the Day. When we were having a rocky day--sour attitudes or over-tired kiddos who wouldn’t nap, for instance--nothing could right our ship like a nature walk along the trail by our house. My older two may have spent the last hour bickering, whining, or being grumpy but all negativity disappeared on the trail.

Now, they were joined together on a mission! Walking sticks were telescopes: “Be on the lookout for trouble up ahead, Matey! We have to protect the Queen!” The sparkly stones that littered our path were jewels: “We must be on the right path toward treasure!” The baby, once fussy, would settle calmly into her carrier, peeking up at the canopy overhead and babbling at the squirrels that skittered away from our footsteps.

The trail by our house, it seemed, was magical: Nature could, at once, improve the mood of a grumpy kindergartner, harness the energy of a wound-up preschooler, calm a fussy baby, and replenish my reserves providing me the energy and patience I needed to make it to bedtime. I didn’t realize at the time that this “magic” was actually science.

Time spent outdoors, especially free play in nature, benefits children in a way that simply cannot be duplicated in the playroom...or in the classroom. Nature play is a crucial need in the healthy cognitive and social-emotional development of a child and, unfortunately, researchers are seeing a dramatic decrease in the amount of time that many children spend playing outdoors and in their access to green space in general.

Cognitive Benefits

Nature is an endless science lab! Surrounded by natural materials (plants, dirt, water, seeds, critters), children are inspired to ask questions, make hypotheses, experiment, and think about the world around them in a curious and exploratory way.

Outside, in a relaxed and playful environment, children use a different type of attention than that which is required in a classroom. This soft focus, or effortless attention, primes children’s brains and gets them ready for the direct attention that classroom tasks and interactions demand. Green space is a teacher’s best friend! Time spent outdoors gets kids ready to learn.

Physical Benefits

Typical elementary school playgrounds, plastic and metal behemoths standing tall over a field of manufactured mulch, are well-suited to children with highly developed gross motor skills. The natural world is much more inclusive of different strengths and physical abilities. Running across uneven terrain, swinging on a branch, rolling down a hill, balancing across a log, experiencing different textures: Outdoor play exposes children to experiences that strengthen not only their gross motor skills, but their proprioception as well. Free play in nature encourages children to take healthy risks and to learn the capabilities of their growing bodies.  

Social/Emotional Benefits

When children engage in free play in nature, they are generally under less oversight from the adults in charge. This gives kids a chance to practice their leadership skills, especially the students who may not naturally rise to leadership positions in the classroom. Moving from the classroom to green space will shake up the social structure of the class in other ways as well. Children who do not interact in meaningful ways in the classroom may gravitate towards similar play experiences once they are cut loose from the structured groupings of academic instruction. New relationships can develop between children that strengthen the classroom community connection as a whole.

Being outdoors feels good. Kids feel free to explore, to spread out, to make noise, and to get messy! Research proves that even a short time in nature can calm kids and improve their moods. In just five minutes, there are measurable changes in a person’s physiology; her face muscles relax, her shoulders slacken, and cycles of persistent, ruminating thoughts come to an end. Spending just five hours a week outdoors leads to a significant improvement in a person’s mental health.

Nature play is crucial for the healthy development of children’s bodies, minds, and relationships. Now that you know why, go outside and play!