Q. Having raised our two children in a major city, my husband and I sometimes worry that we didn’t get them outside often enough. I know people link outdoor play to better health, but can you tell me more specifically what the benefits are?  – Eileen, NY

A. Timely question, Eileen. The $500 million No Child Left Inside Act (H.R. 3036, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes and Sen. Jack Reed) was passed by the House on September 18th of this year and might actually be up for Senate scrutiny in early 2009 if all goes well. In anticipation, the No Child Left Inside  (NCLI) coalition has already drafted an open letter to the President-elect, urging him to throw his weight behind the bill. According to a September 18 government press release, “The legislation would improve existing environmental education programs by providing states with resources to train teachers, develop research-based programs and create environmental literacy plans to ensure that students understand the role of the environment as a natural resource.” In other words, it would get kids outside and instill in them a bit of awe and respect for the natural world.

But the real authority when it comes to nature play and outdoor education is Richard Louv—Audubon Medal winner, author of 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and founder of the Children & Nature Network. Plenty interviewed Louv back in September. Having literally written the book on the importance of nature play, Louv had this to say about its psychological and physical health benefits:

“Children benefit greatly from unstructured play, particularly make-believe play. And kids are far more creative in natural play spaces than on the typical flat playground, whether it’s made of concrete or turf. They are far more likely to invent their own games in natural places. And in schools that have outdoor classrooms kids tend to do better across the board from social studies to standardized testing. One reason is that other than in a New York subway, when else do you use all your senses at the same time? It seems to me that using all of your senses at the same time is the optimum state of learning. When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, or locked in a cubicle called a classroom, you’re not using all your senses at the same time. Outdoors, you are.

Nature play has also been correlated with a longer attention span, and studies show it’s an antidote to child obesity. Psychological health is another benefit: kids with more experience in nature, even if it’s just a view from their room of a natural landscape are more psychologically resilient, or correlated to more psychological resilience.”

Creativity, greater capacity for attentive learning, sharpened senses, physical fitness, psychological resilience—there’s clearly no dearth of reasons to get children outdoors as early as possible. If you’re a numbers person, and this all sounds a little touchy-feely to you, try these stats on for size: According to a study done at the University of Illinois, “children with ADHD demonstrate greater attention after a 20-minute walk in a park than after a similar walk in a downtown area or a residential neighborhood.” 

Another study, conducted on at-risk children by The American Institutes for Research for the California Department of Education, found that week-long outdoor education programs produced a 27 percent increase in “measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem; gains in positive environmental behavior; and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.” Not too shabby.

The good news for your kids, Eileen (if it’s true that they didn’t get out much in early childhood), is that it’s not just young children who benefit from outdoor education. A 1998 study by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert at Yale University looked at the positive effects of wilderness trips on teens, studying youth enrolled in programs with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Outward Bound. Kellert found that the teens’ experiences inspired lasting growth on personal, intellectual, and even spiritual levels. Participants left with greater self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative.

So it’s like George Eliot, wise lady, said in the late 1800’s: “Never too late to be the treehugger you might have been.”

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Concrete evidence for benefits of childhood nature play?
Myriad reasons for children to get out in the wild green yonder.