Outside Play Keeps the Bad Stuff Away

The benefits of spending time outside run far and wide for children, benefits and mindsets that can carry over into adulthood, too.

Mud baths, mud masks, and mud pies—oh my!

Playing outside, and getting down and dirty was a childhood staple of mine, and one that I couldn’t quite let go of into adulthood (ie: the adult-acceptable version of playing in the dirt: mud baths and mud masks).

I remember spending a large majority of my free time as a kid riding my bike around town with my neighbors and cousins until dusk would settled in—we all knew it was better to turn in early than show up after dark and get an earful from Mom and Dad. We’d all meet in the middle of our houses, at the same street corner, and walk to the park, communicate thru walkie talkies, run around chasing lightning bugs, burn things with the magic of sunshine and magnifying glasses (we’d get in trouble every now and then for that one)… You name it, we were out there doing it—because anything was better than being stuck in the house.

The groundhog determined that spring is on its way, though as a New Yorker experiencing zero-degree temperatures and blizzards well into February, I’m questioning his credibility. Regardless of how wrong or right he was, the equinox is around the corner, meaning it’s almost time to get our bare feet back in the grass and our faces in the sun. Few things delight the senses more than getting outside and absorbing the energy of nature around you. Even if you’ve only got two minutes, you’ll feel the change as soon as your slip off your shoes and socks and let your toes connect with the earth, sinking into the dirt. Any opportunity you get: opt outside.

Nowadays when it’s nice out, take a look outside. How many kids do you see outside playing in the dirt, gardening with mom, riding their bikes, or writing on the ground with sidewalk chalk? Maybe it differs from town to town, but from where I’m looking, there’s just a small handful. With the Internet living conveniently in our hands 24 hours a day, and video games that are so impressively created they can practically simulate a new reality, kids are more drawn to their screens than their yards.

Consider this your official call to action to get outside, and get the kids out there, too. Despite the obvious reason kids should be playing outside: it’s fun (!!), there are other benefits associated with opting outside, too, and it goes beyond the physical. The New York Times recently reflected on a book (The Dirt Cure: Growing Healthy Kids with Food Straight from Soil) written by New York pediatric neurologist, Dr. Shetreat-Klein, her book supports the idea that getting outside has countless benefits that children should not be missing out on.

According to the New York Times:

The book delves into research that suggests that spending time around farms, parks, and other green spaces can benefit children in surprising ways, protecting against allergies, enhancing immune function, and potentially even improving attention span and academic performance.

Like the article, and Shetreat-Klein’s book suggest, time spent outside hosts a plethora of benefits, and even some preventative perks. Holding the attention of a child is not always an easy task—whether you’re in the classroom or not—but being quick to throw diagnosis of ADD and ADHD are surely not the answer. A study published in PMC spoke to nature’s effect on children and their cognitive function after spending time in “green or natural settings.”

Frances E. Kuo, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, had parents throughout the nation rate the “aftereffects of 49 common after-school and weekend activities on children’s symptoms,” and concluded that “green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.” Time spent in nature, or even with a “green” setting in view can also bring children’s stress levels down. According to the National Wildlife Federation, and an article published in the Cornell Chronicle, “Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.”

As if that alone isn’t reason enough to set aside time every day for outside play, there are physical benefits associated with time spent in nature that can benefit children, and in turn, potentially set them up for a healthier adulthood. It’s certainly no secret that as we age our eyes get weaker, some realizing their eyesight is getting worse with every passing year. While it can’t be determined that spending time outside is a sure-fire way to keep eyes strong (I had glasses by fifth grade, so…), the American Optometric Association says that time spent outdoors could “reduce risk for myopia (nearsightedness) in children.”

Another preventative perk of the great outdoors? Aiding in eliminating, or at least decreasing, vitamin deficiencies in a natural way. According to Care.com the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling attention to growing vitamin deficiencies in kids, specifically vitamin D. Want to get a natural dose of the supplement? Turn to good ol’ fashioned (and free!) sunshine. But, of course, as always, don’t forget the sunscreen.

Now that you’ve got a host of information touting the benefits, and, lets face it, the necessity of outside time will you set aside time to reap the rewards? While this focuses highly on the benefits of nature on children in particular, we can’t forget we’re all still children at heart. These benefits will help us all, young and old. So, frolic, skip, dance, lay in the grass. Absorb that vitamin D, focus your attention, and let your stresses melt away. No matter how old you are, you’re never too old to head outside for some much needed play.

Maggie Peikon is a New York native, writer, and sufferer of insatiable wanderlust. An avid endorphin seeker she has a constant need to be moving, seeking adventure in all she does. She is a lover of travel, daydreaming, fitness, thunderstorms, and her dog, Finley. Despite the fact that she has to take medication daily due to a thyroidectomy, Maggie still believes that laughter will always be the best medicine. Follow her musings on Instagram and Twitter.