Many parents today spent their childhood riding their bikes and playing games like baseball or dodgeball on side streets and in neighbors' backyards. Many children today spend much of their time indoors, playing games on their tablets or watching television. The American Academy of Pediatrics says lots of unstructured outdoor play is critical to the health of children, though many have experienced a marked decline in the time they spend in free play.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says childhood obesity rates more than doubled from 1980 to 2010. Outdoor play gives children the opportunity to run, jump, climb, swim, dance and more, all of which provide aerobic exercise and strength training. Outdoor physical activity also strengthens the immune system and improves vitamin D levels, which can provide protection from osteoporosis and health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. Being out there improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.
It may be hard to accept that children could experience stress or suffer from conditions like depression or anxiety, but these issues are becoming more common for today's children, who have busy schedules with school and extracurricular activities. Physical activity in the form of outdoor play can help kids reduce their stress. The Children & Nature Network says contact with nature can help reduce stress levels and positively impact conditions such as anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.
The neurological benefits of unstructured outdoor play extend far beyond mental health. Encouraging children to get plenty of outdoor play can provide intellectual stimulation, as well. The AAP says outdoor play has been shown to help children focus better in a classroom setting and to enhance readiness for learning, easing the transition to school. Outdoor play also encourages learning and problem-solving skills, which can help children perform better in the classroom. Unstructured outdoor play also promotes creativity, which children can apply to their academic learning, helping them see the material in another way.
When children play with other children outdoors, it encourages their social development. Play gives children opportunities to learn how to work in groups, including learning how to share, how to negotiate and how to resolve conflicts, the AAP reports. Children who are allowed to explore through play can learn new skills and overcome challenges, which can promote self-confidence, resiliency and self-advocacy, all of which can help children learn how to develop healthy relationships and to become leaders.
There’s a reason they call it the great outdoors.