Health & Wellness Articles

Why Kids Need to Spend Time Outdoors

Does Your Child Suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder?

Today, kids are well aware of the global threats to their environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature on a day-to-day basis, is fading.

A fifth-grader in a San Diego classroom put it succinctly: "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."

I believe our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. That unintended message is delivered by schools, families, even organizations devoted to the outdoors, and codified into the legal and regulatory structures of many of our communities—effectively banning much of the kind of play that we enjoyed as children. Our institutions, urban/suburban design and cultural attitudes unconsciously associate nature with doom, while disassociating the outdoors from joy and solitude. Well-meaning public school systems, media and parents are scaring children straight out of the woods and fields. Many parents are aware of the change, and they sense its importance.

When asked, they cite a number of everyday reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they themselves did, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework and other time pressures. Most of all, parents cite fear of "stranger danger," as round-the-clock news coverage conditions them to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings, despite evidence that the number has been falling for years.

As a result, children's worlds, limitless in cyberspace, are shrinking in reality. As the nature deficit grows, new studies demonstrate just how important direct contact with the outdoors is to healthy human development. Most of the new evidence that connects nature to well-being and restoration has focused on adults, but during the past decade, scientists have begun to study the impact of nature on child development. Environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that nature in or around the home, or simply a room with a view of a natural landscape, helped protect the psychological well-being of the children.

Researchers have found that children with disabilities gain enhanced body image and positive behavior changes through direct interaction with nature. Studies of outdoor education programs geared toward troubled youth – especially those diagnosed with mental health problems - show a clear therapeutic value. Some of the most intriguing studies are being done by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, where researchers have discovered that children as young as five showed a significant reduction in the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Disorder when they engaged with nature. Could nature therapy be a new option for ADD treatment?

Meanwhile, the California-based State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a national effort to study environment-based education, found that schools that use outdoor classrooms, among other techniques, produce student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math; improved standardized test scores and grade-point averages; and enhanced skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making. In addition, evidence suggests that time in natural surroundings stimulates children's creativity.

People who care about children and the future of the environment need to know about such research, but for the most part, they do not. Today we see dramatic increases in childhood obesity, attention difficulties and depression. When these issues are discussed at the conference table or the kitchen table, direct childhood experience in nature is seldom mentioned. Yet, the growing nature deficit experienced by today's children, and potentially for generations to come, may be the most important common denominator.

I am not suggesting that we bring back the free-range childhood of the 1950s. Those days are over. But, with a deeper understanding of the importance of nature play to healthy child development, and to their sense of connection to the world, we can create safe zones for nature exploration. We can preserve the open space in our cities, and even design and build new kinds of communities, using the principles of green urbanism. We can weave nature therapy into our health-care system, natural experiences into our classrooms. In education, we can build a No Child Left Inside movement.

And, we can challenge environmental organizations to take this issue seriously. For if the disconnection between children and nature continues, who will become the future stewards of the earth—and who will swing on birches?

Posted with permission from the Grow Outside Guide to Outdoor Play, published by the Leave No Child Inside Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati.

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Member Comments

  • It's sad that our world is different now than it was when we were raising our children. However, I take my grandson & his friend's to the playground. We live in the country. It's a wonderful place to raise kids
  • Why do you think kids can't "free range" anymore? Exploring their neighborhood, community, etc is what makes being a kid a fun thing. I remember taking long, long bike rides to neighboring communities when I was a kid to check out their mill park or different playgrounds than the ones I was used to. Telling kids that they can no longer do those types of things just instills fear. Maybe make a family trip of it the first time if you are so afraid. But please, let kids be kids and explore their world.
  • Everyone needs time outdoors, not just kids!
  • I totally agree! I do worry about cars because, sadly, people aren't used to kids being outside & don't watch for them anymore (and my neighborhood has no sidewalks). There are also less kids outside for creeps to pick from, so mine have a better chance of being messed with by sickos (I had a family member get abducted by a stranger - luckily we got her back OK).

    Having said that, my kids play outside in the fenced yard almost daily (where I can see them). We also frequently go to playgrounds, parks, fishing, hiking, sledding, snowball fighting, etc! It gets me outdoors too and I feel safe being able to watch my's a win-win!
  • This is SO TRUE! Kids NEED to be outside to gain all the benefits cited in the article AND to ensure that they care about the environment!!
  • My kids grew up in a coastal Oregon town where they were lucky to have lots to do outdoors. We have parks, nature areas, beaches and lots more. They a very large part of their free time outdoors as did I when I was a child.
    "Those days are over". Who says? My neighbors and I routinely boot our kids out the door and expect them to play together, to ranger over the neighborhood, down the street (or across our little town) to the parks, and back again. We expect them to play Ghosts in the Graveyard, Freeze Tag, and Hide-and-Seek. We're a neighborhood with the young and the old in it--parental ages range from late teens to late fifties--no, those days aren't over...the only thing REALLY lacking is the type of parent it takes to let it go on.
  • Funny how I am always saying this, seems like kids stay indoors, they don't like nature, don't like dirt, bugs or mud. I would slowly die if I had to stay indoors, I hate my "work week" periods because there is only a minimum of outside time in those 3 nights, it makes me cranky and restless. Kids that play outside utilize imagination, get more physical activity, have better appetites for healthy foods. One of the sad things about today's families is that a majority of them do not know the joys of gardening. Tilling the earth, planting the seeds, harvesting the fruits and vegetables and placing them on the table can be a family project to get everyone outside and active, and provide a pride in the accomplishment.
    I totally agree with your point of view. Where I work as a teacher, no outdoor activity. It sort of disconnect the child from nature as you stated.
  • Getting outside isn't always easy but my husband and I try. I take my child bike-riding often;although finding a bike path that is safe for kids is a challenge. Once a week we go swimming. We also go to the local botanical garden where they have a wonderful children's garden. Star gazing through the museum is great night-time fun. We also light the fire pit outside and look for satellites!

    Even though I live next to a school, there really aren't any kids in our community for my daughter to play with. Usually, we have to schedule something in advance and drive. Many of the parents that I speak to also do this. Some they tell me that they have to do this in order to protect them from bad kids!
  • Why is free range play over? If the risks are down there should be no problem. My biggest fears letting my kids play outside on their own isn't stranger danger but whackos calling CAS or the police out of over concern, as has happened to far too many parents. Something is wrong when irrational fear is hurting our children's health!
    I purchased the book some years back and was blessed to be running a museum with a. NATURE PRESERVE and every week took our aftershocks students out on the trails. They loved it and learned so much!
  • I think children should play outside . It is heathly. When I was a child we had the biggest,level yard and all the kids all ages came down and we played kick ball. We had a little pond and a creek that ran through our yard, my cousins and I would wade the creek and pretend we were marimaids. The great outdoors can bring great imagination, and that is a good way of improving the brain power.It is healthly for children to get dirty. So I say get out and play. I think it is wonderful when schools have playgrounds,that might me the onlt chance some kids can go out and play. Hats off to the ones who help create, this areas at schools.
    I live in a small country town with lots of open space. Open my back gate and there are hundreds of acres of National Park but my city dwelling grandsons never venture out of the door into the garden let alone the park. And just try to get them to the beach! No way! But they will swim in the indoor pool.
    They are totally hooked up to electronic devices every minute of the day but I don't think it is my role to disconnect them.
    I will keep trying to get them outdoors, though.
  • My child is free-range.
    He is also lovingly protected from the assault of television, computer game & internet culture.
    I honestly cannot comprehend the why people permit media pollution in their homes.
    My partner & I work in music & multimedia, we are acutely aware of the means of production.

About The Author

Leave No Child Inside Leave No Child Inside
Through education and community engagement, the Leave No Child Inside Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati promotes children's outdoor play, learning and lifelong connection with nature. Learn more at

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