Why Outdoor Time Is Important For Kids
We spend a lot of time outdoors.
This was never more apparent than one week this past summer, when the smoke from the west coast's wildfires blew over our area and kept us inside. The air quality was atrocious. For a whole week, the kids looked longingly out the sliding glass door to our backyard, not understanding what "hazardous" meant and why some smoke and a funny smell ought to keep them in.
The kids are happier outside. They have more freedom and independence. There's more climbing, running, jumping, crawling, peeking, collecting, poking, exploring, discovering, wandering, touching, seeing, seeking. There's a little more of everything that we consider important for children. Gross motor skills, fine motor skills, cooperation, play, all the things people typically list when they list what's good for children's development.
Being outside is important for our mood and well-being, too. It's in the late afternoon or evening when I really notice if we haven't been outside enough for the day—everyone is restless or fussy. This harkens back to my recent review of Sarah Ivens' book Forest Therapy. The whole premise of that book was that being outside in nature replenishes, refreshes, and nourishes. If one of the kids is having a rough day, often I realize it's because we spent all morning inside. And as soon as we're outside again, whether barefoot with no shirts in the summer or bundled up in coats in the winter, everyone's frustrations magically seem to disappear. Something about being in nature. The air. The sky. Something about our human history, mammals evolved in the world, not inside a set of walls.
We dress for the weather and go outside no matter what (barring hazardous wildfire smoke, of course). We make pretend soup with rainwater and yard debris. We find worms in the dirt and rolly-pollys hiding in the grass, and make homes for them in little dirt piles. We collect colored leaves for later art projects, or just to look at for the afternoon. We jump in leaf piles. We make snowmen, throw snowballs, and watch icicles form on the edges of the roof's gutter.
The kids help me in the garden. They help plant seeds indoors in February or March, watch the sun come up to nourish our seedlings, and later help scoop and spread compost into the garden beds before we move all the plants outside in the late spring. They spray water with the hose, help pull weeds, and keep an eye out for the first buds. They watch eagerly as tomatoes turn from green to orange to red. They help with the harvest, putting tomatoes and carrots into buckets, picking chamomile flowers, looking under large leaves to find zucchini or cucumbers.
The examples of nature in Forest Therapy tended to be grand: a retreat in the rocky hills of New Mexico, a tour through the rainforests of Indonesia or the lush mountains of Japan. Our nature is closer to home, everyday. But we don't need to travel halfway around the world to realize the importance of time outdoors.
I love being outside with the kids, rather than simply by myself. They notice textures, colors, sounds. They bring a mindfulness that most adults have forgotten. When we go walking at local parks, my 4yo son trades out sticks of increasing size, attacks tree-dragons, and stops to poke the dirt and rocks. My 1.5yo daughter pauses to touch every flower and every leaf. They notice puffy white clouds, swirls of bubbles in the creek, moss on the side of a log. Sometimes we spot a woodpecker. Sometimes a flock of Canadian geese fly by overhead, honking loudly.
I do wonder how much of the positive effects of our outdoor time is due to the influence of simply being outdoors, and how much is the fact of having more freedom and independence when outdoors. Outside, no one is telling the kids not to climb on the back of the couch or to be careful around the glasses on the table or not to hit the pictures off the walls. Their exploration has fewer limits. Their independence is greater.
Watching little people grow can provide a lot of insight into how people in general function best. People need independence and time for exploration. Time to be in the world, without someone else constantly looking over their shoulder. Time outdoors.