The Importance of Spontaneous Outdoor Play in Nature

By: Tracey Byrne
Tracey-Byrne

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Tracey Byrne is a photographer and blogger with a passion for the all the small creatures that inhabit her backyard. As…

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A child’s right to play has all but disappeared in recent years, and as a society we are suffering for it. Far from being a frivolous activity, outdoor play in nature is essential to healthy cognitive and intellectual development. Children use play to engage with and learn about the world around them. Through exploration they develop new skills, and as a result, become comfortable and confident in their bodies.

Alana Byrne.  Photo: Tracey Byrne

Alana Byrne. Photo: Tracey Byrne

Researchers have found that the more time children spend in nature—running, jumping, climbing—the better their patient observation skills become. Spending time in nature not only increases a child’s creativity, but also gives them a sense of peace and belonging. These studies indicate that play contributes to advances in verbalization, vocabulary, language comprehension, attention span, imagination, concentration, impulse control, curiosity, problem-solving strategies, cooperation, empathy, and group participation. Play encourages children to expand their physical, cognitive, and emotional strengths, and allows them independence and the ability to challenge themselves while they develop their own interests. By taking our children outside to play, we join them in a journey of discovery.

Recent studies have found a link between the lack of free outdoor play and the prevalence of emotional disorders. Young children, at alarming rates, are suffering from obesity, lower school achievement, anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, and behavior disorders as a result of diminished outside playtime. In addition, there is a significant link between the lack of outdoor play and the severity of symptoms in children with a diagnosis of ADHD.

Instead of playing outside, our kids are engaged in sedate electronic media activities, and spend hours being driven to and from enrichment lessons and organized sports. The amount of screen-time our children tally is high: 7.5 hours/day for children ages 8 to 18. Currently, children in the United States average seven minutes of outdoor play each day, a far cry from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of at least one hour per day of unstructured time to relax and unwind. Even chickens and prisoners are guaranteed more time outside than our children. We are witnessing the consequences of decades of marketing and misinformation, and these statistics show the need to rethink our roles as parents and educators.