When my son, Alexi, was a baby, I discovered the most dramatic and simple way to settle him.
I took him outside.
Whether he was cranky, tired, or just off kilter, 90% of the time simply walking out that front door produced a radically calming effect. And when he wouldn’t go to sleep, I’d walk around the neighborhood with him and within 15-20 minutes he’d drift off peacefully.
It turns out this isn’t just one mom’s little trick. Outside time is essential for children’s development, not just for difficult moments. And child advocates from multiple disciplines are sounding the alarm because of the decreasing time babies, toddlers, and young children are spending outdoors.
Headstart, the U.S. federal government’s program that supports the development of children ages zero to five years old, reprinted an article from the National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play stating that children growing up now spend the least amount of time outdoors than any other previous generation. The authors cite a Nielson study claiming that two to five-year-olds spend an average of 32 hours a week in front of a screen; older children even more.
Journalist and child advocate, Richard Louv, created a stir with his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, in which he coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder,” the harmful effects of a childhood spent indoors. Louv cites obesity, depression, and psychological issues as just a few of the adverse effects of kids who spend limited time in nature.
Hungry for information to help me better parent my son, I did some digging about the benefits of kids getting outside. Then I quickly logged off, grabbed Alexi and the frisbee, and went out to play.
Headstart produced a technical assistance paper, “Supporting Outdoor Play and Exploration,” in which authors discuss the benefits of time spent outdoors for children.
First, time in nature is good for kids’ bodies:
- Outdoor play requires kids to use large motor skills and also tends to involve larger and faster movements, which develop young hearts, lungs, and muscles.
- Being outside helps build children’s immune systems, which translates into fewer days of missed daycare or school;
- Children who spend lots of time outside have fewer issues with vitamin D deficiency;
- They have better eyesight; and
- Kids with ADHD diagnoses who play outside frequently have milder symptoms.
Second, spending time in nature helps kids socially. Researchers found that kids who spend time in nature benefit in areas such as
- Social skills
- Decision-making, problem-solving, collaboration skills, and language and communication aptitude
Outdoor engagement builds kids’ cognitive abilities through interaction with the physical world. And finally, perhaps most importantly, time outside builds a connection with the natural world and positive attitudes about it, critical for later engagement with the issues we’re facing today like climate change.
I’m personally glad I started early. Now Alexi and I regularly take walks with our dog, care for our property together and just have fun, building a snowman in winter or building a bonfire and roasting marshmallows in summer. The Great Outdoors is great for us parents too!
So take your baby outside every day, whether it’s a walk to a neighbor’s or just around the block. Have a picnic in the park. Take up regular exercise with your baby; there are many strollers in which infants and toddlers can ride while the parent is walking, jogging, or biking. Make angels in the snow. Climb trees. Stargaze. And know that as you’re simply enjoying time with your kids in the wonderful world of nature, you’re also giving them a foundation for a healthy and happy life for many years to come.
For further reading, check out the Children and Nature Network http://www.childrenandnature.org, an organization co-founded by Richard Louv, dedicated to connecting children, families and communities to nature.
Early Head Start National Resource Center, Supporting Outdoor Play and Exploration for Infants and Toddlers. Technical Assistance Paper #14, Washington, D.C.: Office of Head Start, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014. (http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/ehsnrc/docs/ehs-ta-paper-14-outdoor-play.pdf)
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2005. Print. My goddaughter is so calm and relaxed when we walk by the river.