Time in nature and outdoor play: Enjoy the many health benefits

Boy playing outdoors with a kite

Boy playing outdoors with a kite

How much outdoor play time do you and your children get each day? How about your daily contact with nature? Little to none for both answers, you say?

Well, in today’s world, not spending time in nature is more the norm than the exception for both children and adults.

Screen time and organized sports and activities win over free, unstructured nature play almost every time and dominate most kids’ schedules. And despite knowing the risks of screen time for children, many kids are still not playing outside.

Gone are the days (like when I grew up) when your mom would open the door to the backyard in the morning and say, “Have fun and come back for lunch.”  But here’s why you should think about bringing those days back again.

And as an Earth Day celebration this year, April 22, don’t just plant a tree — climb one too!

Do you and your children have nature-deficit disorder?

We often talk about food as medicine. But let’s not overlook the power of Mother Nature to heal the mind and body.

These days, most of us are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv, in his best-seller, Last Child in the Woods.

Louv is a journalist and author of nine books about nature, family, and community, and the co-founder of the Children & Nature Network. Louv says children today are spending less time outdoors than they ever have in human history, and this has severe consequences for their emotional, behavioral, and physical development.

And Dr. Joseph Mosquera, founder and chief medical officer of saludmóvilcouldn’t agree more. “There is an emerging epidemic of social and behavioral issues, vision problems like myopia, and, of course, obesity profoundly affecting children — especially Hispanic children with great disparity. They must interact more with natural spaces to balance the tech innovation being thrust at them!”

Health benefits of playing outdoors 

“A widening circle of researchers believes that the loss of natural habitat, or the disconnection from nature even when it is available, has enormous implications for human health and child development. They say the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level,” Louv points out in his book.

So here’s why you and your kids need to get outside and play (now!):

Nature play decreases risk of obesity and other diseases

This includes cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, which are growing epidemics in the U.S. even among young children.  

And while those hours on the treadmill or your kids’ after-school sports may help somewhat, pay attention to this interesting fact Louv offers in his book: “The obesity epidemic coincides with the greatest increase in organized sports in history.”

So what are kids missing that organized sports can’t provide? The answer: unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play outside and in nature.

Mother Nature offers certain health benefits that can’t be replicated.

The physical exercise and emotional stretching that children enjoy in unorganized play is more varied and less time-bound both physically and emotionally than in organized sports, Louv explains.

Spending time in nature is good for your emotional health

It reduces stress and depression, makes you happy, and is amazing for your mental health.

“Connections with nature are essential to normal growth and development of our psycho-social being, and the healthy neuropsychiatric growth of every child,” Dr. Mosquera tells us.

And research also backs this up. Findings show that children who live in and around nature are less impacted by stressful events and experience less anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders.

But we don’t really need studies to tell us this. How many times have you had something stressful on your mind, and you took a walk outside to feel better?  

Could spending time in nature even help or cure some forms of depression?  

Louv thinks so. “The use of nature as an alternative, additional, or preventative therapy is being overlooked. In fact, new evidence suggests that the need for such [antidepressant] medications is intensified by children’s disconnection from nature.”

Just one more reason to turn off that screen and get outside.

More benefits of playing outdoors, on page 2

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