The Benefits of Playing Outside

Outdoor activities unleash your child's imagination and foster a love of nature, too.




When I was a kid, I escaped into the woods of Washington Crossing State Park. Near where General Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Eve in 1776, my friend and I rode our bikes over the highway on a new footbridge built for the Bicentennial. We moved on, up Continental Lane — used by the colonial militia themselves — past Green Grove to the sledding hill. We pedaled through the picnic area, whooping and hollering on some marauding raid. Then it was off to the skating pond, if we had the energy, and back to the creek — a creek would always take us home, would lead us downhill toward the river, like veins lead back to the heart.

In these magical spaces, limits were tested, roles were played, bonds were formed — with each other and with those places. Bodies grew strong, imaginations stretched, time suspended. It was a wondrous, enchanting childhood.

Vigorous outdoor play, where have you gone?

The environmentalist Rachel Carson once hoped for children to be given "a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years." That sense of wonder can sometimes dim in adulthood, but for kids it becomes keener when time is spent outside. Outdoor play encourages discovery and exploration, and it builds relationships with both social and biological communities. It gives children all the health benefits of exercise, along with the character-building benefits of play. You want to get them "out" so they develop a healthy "in."

Simple Solutions
Getting kids to spend time in nature these days can be tough. Inside, children are drawn to the flickering waves of TV and the electrifying boing of video games. Outside, parents worry about potential hazards. There are streets to cross and unknowns to encounter. Yes, but there's also wonder. Possibility. Trails to create. Animal tracks to pursue. Plus, nature in itself is one big schoolhouse! Why skip school?

The following ideas for connecting your child with nature are collected from the experiences I have had over the years with my two children. They are simple means of contact that can benefit your family. Some require parental involvement, others are solo ventures. All are worth your time, energy, and faith that nature is our friend.

  • Take indoor toys outdoors. One day I enticed my daughter and her friend to go to the creek by suggesting that we take Barbie for a swim. The doll shot the rapids several times. Much screaming ensued, but brother Sam was ready with the net to rescue helpless Barbie from the maelstrom. I've also drawn the kids out by suggesting we take the stuffed animals for a boat ride. We chase plastic containers floating and bobbing down the mini-rapids. Sometimes the animals get lost on the way down and a search and rescue mission begins.
  • Go creek-walking. It's not officially sanctioned as an after-school sport, but it requires some of the same skills and teaches some of the same values. To walk over slippery rocks, kids need agility, balance, and endurance, and to be graceful as a heron. Creek walking can also teach fair play. Nobody needs to win or lose, least of all the critters.
  • Organize a hike date. Kids hike better with other kids, so get them out together. We visit the wildflowers in spring and take trips through our park with local naturalists. No need for hiking boots or extensive gear — go on "sneaker hikes" that are more about play and being together than getting to the summit. Kids like hikes along creeks or around tadpole-rich ponds where wildlife is more likely to be found.
  • Begin a nature collection. We have a "science box" to hold things collected on our walks: raccoon fur, cicada shells, moth wings, and stag beetles. Every walk with children turns up some treasure to keep, and though we encourage them to "take only memories," sometimes a bird feather has to come along. Go out to get filled up.
  • Think beyond the lawn. Want the neighborhood kids to play in your yard? Cut a maze through the grass. Or build a tree house. At the very least, let them tear up the lawn or dig holes. A mound of dirt will work just as well as a sandbox for race tracks or a moated castle. Our friends have a dirt pile so special it has its own name — "Dirt World."
  • Uncover the hidden world. Learning about the animals that live near to us can stimulate wonder. Just turning over a garden brick exposes a whole world of crawling, squirming things that are startled by sunlight. Hold a salamander and he's clammy, but fleshy and alive. Little legs and a long slender body wriggles in your palm, tail twisting. Even our nearby vultures inspire a kind of wonder as we learn that they roost at night in the cover of the white pines to prevent heat loss.
  • Looking for Adventure
    On the last day of winter vacation, my children have watched some TV here, a little there, and have asked if they can play on the computer. These activities only seem to leave them more restless. I suggest they take to the woods. A half-hour later I follow them in to check on their progress. They have reached the bottom of the ravine, thick with woody vines and tangles of branches. By now I have been spotted and my daughter tells me to leave. "Don't worry," adds older brother Sam. "We'll be home."
  • When they come back, hands scraped by thorns, shins barked on logs, cheeks reddened by the roused wind, they are elated from the adventure. They tell me they want to do it every day of the year. There are some things you can do to encourage the same spirit of adventure in your children. Try these strategies:
  • Be not afraid of the dark. Nighttime is the best time to incite wonder, so help kids get past their fear of the dark. Think of the freedom of playing outside when you were young. Remember those games of tag or home-free lasting until dusk, until it was "Time to come in now. It's getting dark." It's a magical time when the lightning bugs come out, as do the stars. Kids can learn to tell the katydids from the crickets (use a flashlight to follow them to the source), the hoppers from the peepers, and the barred owl ("who cooks for you all") from the screech.
  • Limit screen time. Computers, TVs, video games shield us from the outdoors. Technology is so seductive that refraining from using it can seem like fighting an addiction, but going outside leads to greater fulfillment. Young, developing kids also learn kinesthetically, by movement, but too often they learn about nature rather than from it. And when immersed in it, they may develop a reverence for it.
  • Remove the fence. To encourage children to roam in fields, take down the physical — and metaphorical — fence that exists between your yard and the world beyond. When we emphasize danger, we limit their ability to seek and explore, to be curious. Taking down the fence also means letting them get dirty and wet. The only way to experience the world around you is to jump right in.
  • Free up some time — perhaps most important of all, if the kids are to get out. Kids need organized, linear play but also the creative, lateral kind. Let them move about and referee their own disputes. Have them tromp around on foot or bike, listen to creeks, taste the wind and the morning mist, and feel the old dirt world go round.
  • A Whole Other World
    When your children come to you with those dreaded words, "I'm bored," tell them what your parents told you: "Go outside." After all, maybe the real goal of parenting is to help kids figure out what they can do with themselves on their own time.

Kids naturally want to explore, expand knowledge, recognize beauty, and develop affinity for creatures independent of them, and there's a rich, lush green world out there to do it in. Outside lie animals and people to meet, stories to unfold, miracles to witness, hardships to overcome. Kids can sense much of this inside, but it is recalled more deeply when they get out.

Adapted from A Natural Sense of Wonder, published by the University of Georgia Press. Used with permission.

Social Skills
Gross Motor Skills
Creativity & Play
Age 10
Age 9
Age 8
Social and Emotional Development
Games and Toys
Physical Development