Kids who regularly spend time playing in and exploring the outdoors benefit from fitter bodies, calmer minds, reduced incidence of stress and attention deficit disorders, and greater academic achievement.
Play is the work of childhood. It’s so vital and fulfilling an activity that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognized the right of every child to play—it’s that essential to the healthy development of young people everywhere.
One other thing about play: For all but the most recent sliver of human history, play was an unstructured activity that took place outdoors. Nature, in a very real sense, was the playground that informed our development—mind, body, and spirit.
To many of us, this might seem like good old-fashioned common sense. Yet, in the United States, we have been witnessing the slow, steady migration of our children to the indoors, where green time has been replaced by screen time, and where the epidemic of childhood obesity has grown for decades.
When researching my book, The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids, the figures I found were staggering: As children’s time spent on outdoor and nature-based activities dwindled to one half-hour per week, their time using screen media took on full-time job proportions—the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the average young person now spends seven and a half hours per day with entertainment media, and by “multitasking” fits the equivalent of 11 hours of media consumption into that time. This increasingly sedentary lifestyle took a predictable toll on the physical fitness of children. From the 1960s to the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the number of overweight or obese children and youth in the United States tripled. Astonishingly, in the decade that followed, the increase was 45 percent.
But just as there is a clear body of research to sound the alarm, there is a wealth of widely accepted research that confirms what we’ve long known—that time spent in nature is fundamentally good for the healthy development of children. Kids who regularly spend time playing in and exploring the outdoors benefit from fitter bodies, calmer minds, reduced incidence of stress and attention deficit disorders, and greater academic achievement. And, it should come as no surprise, they are happier. Being in nature, playing outdoors—it turns out these things are fun.
All of which is why I take issue with the recent ad campaign from retailer Toys R Us, which depicts a group of school children, ostensibly being taken on a field trip to the forest by a ranger-like figure, suddenly becoming frenzied with delight when they learn that their field trip is actually going to the store where they each will receive the toy of their choosing. It is, the ad informs us, where you can “make all their wishes come true.”
It’s tempting to suggest that one might wish for more than a wonderland of plastic and licensed characters, but I have no complaint with toys themselves. What child wouldn’t enjoy playing with them for a while? Rather, I object to the trite, ham-handed, and erroneous characterization of nature as boring to children. It might work well within that fantasy world of marketing, but it’s simply not borne out by the facts of the real world.
Children who climb trees, make mud pies, explore streams, stare at clouds, collect leaves, make swords of sticks, wish on dandelions, build forts and fairy houses—these children are exercising their bodies as they exercise their imaginations, with no batteries required, and are immeasurably the richer for it.
I applaud the efforts of every parent who takes the time to make childhood fun, with a spirit of playfulness and adventure. For many of us, we simply can’t imagine that happening without a meaningful connection to the natural world, whether it’s the simple pleasure of our own backyard or the grandeur of a national park.
And for all of us … well, let’s just remember to be careful what we wish for.
About the author
Todd Christopher Senior Director, Digital & Editorial Strategy
Todd guides NPCA's content strategy and leads the team that produces our website and magazine. He is also the author of The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.