Playing outside is more than just fun.  It's vital.

My place is in the woods.

My parents are outdoorsy people, and so from the time I was a baby, I was exploring meadows, stream beds, and forests on family hikes, camping trips, and everyday afternoons with my brothers.

First week at sleep-away camp!

First week at sleep-away camp!

When I was 6, I spent a whole week in the woods at sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania and went back every summer until I was in high school. I have strong sense memories of the crickets at dusk, the smell of the forest after the rainstorm, and the crunch of the leaves under my feet.

The woods are now my special place. I go there to be at peace, to collect my thoughts, and to re-connect to the greater natural world.  Do you have a place like that?  Maybe the ocean, a field of wildflowers, or the desert at twilight? 

This deep connection to nature, this sense of place, is disappearing as children today are spending less and less time outside in unstructured wild play, and more time in the digital world of movies, video games, and apps.  This is a concern as research is confirming that children need direct contact with nature for healthy physical and emotional development. 

Spending your childhood in the mud, leaves, and sand forms the foundation for many academic pursuits especially science, technology, engineering, and math. Children who spend time outside are healthier physically and mentally. They are less likely to have allergies or attention disorders, and more likely to take calculated risks. 

It turns out, just by encouraging your child to get outside, you can increase the chance that they will have a deep connection with nature.  Even if you live in the city, a tiny apartment, or have no outdoor space of your own, you can foster this sense of place!  Here's some tips to get started:

Playing outside is more than just fun. It's vital. .jpg

Spend time outside together. Have a family camp out, take a hike, or have a meal outside. Make sure you have a few long blocks of time where your children can play in nature unscripted: an afternoon digging at the beach, a morning climbing trees, an evening hunting for minnows.  Need ideas? Check out these books.

Go on a walk in nature as a family.

Find a place nearby to visit frequently, every day if possible. A space in your yard is ideal, but a local park, an empty lot, or a walking trail can work too. Repeated visits to the same place offer an opportunity to observe slight changes, look closer, make discoveries, and feel connected.

Go for a walk with your toddler.

If you are fortunate to have a yard, create a “rough” area for wild play and a sense of ownership.

Don't be afraid for your toddler to get muddy!

Teach your children about common dangers: teach your children which plants, animals, and areas require caution. This includes teaching them to swim

You don't need to plan lots of activities to get outside.  Just go!

Dress for the weather. Snow pants, rain boots, good jackets.  Don't let “bad weather” stop you!

Dress for the weather!

Share stories about natural places. These can be your own, from literature, or from another person. Much of my outdoor play was inspired by books I read as a child.

Share stories about outdoor natural places

Seek out play spaces that offer opportunities for wild play or hands-on experience with the natural world. Nature centers, natural playgrounds, are a good place to start.

Get hands-on with nature!


Check out the other posts in this series to get started!  Do you have a special place? Share your story with us!

About the Author:

Leanne Gray, M.Ed has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. 

She's on a mission to raise a generation of kind, confident, responsible children, and does this through her work with families and schools.   Read more here.