Benefits of Nature Play for Little Ones

Were you an indoor kid?

In today's technology-driven world, it's easy for children to become glued to screens, missing out on the countless benefits of playing outdoors. In fact, we all could use a little more nature in our lives!

Especially if being in nature doesn’t come naturally to you, you might find yourself – and in turn, your child – spending a little more time inside than you’d like. 

But outdoor play for kids isn't just about fresh air, vitamin D, a change or scenery, or burning off energy (though those things are pretty great!). It's about unlocking a treasure trove of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual growth opportunities for children of all ages, from babies to little school-aged explorers.

These tips and benefits will help you and your little one spend more time outdoors.

What are the benefits of outdoor play for kids?

There are so many! The benefits of outdoor play resonate throughout a child's development, enriching their lives in diverse ways.

Physical Development

  • Advancing Motor Skills: From mastering the art of crawling to perfecting bicycle stunts, the natural environment provides an expansive playground for gross and fine motor skill development. Uneven terrain helps your child develop balance and coordination, climbing enhances agility and strength, and digging in the dirt strengthens fine motor control.
  • Physical Activity for Overall Health and Well-being: Getting comfortable in nature early will stick with your child throughout their life. Outdoor play fights the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, promoting physical activity and fostering healthy habits. Running, jumping, and climbing increase heart rate, improve muscle tone, and contribute to a healthy weight range. This physical activity also has a positive impact on mental health, reducing stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression, while promoting better sleep patterns.
  • Improved Immunity: Studies suggest that exposure to diverse environmental microbes through outdoor play can strengthen the immune system. Regular interaction with nature can help children build resistance to allergies and illnesses, keeping them healthier in the long run.

Social and Emotional Development

  • Communication with Others: Playing outdoors provides opportunities for children to interact with each other, fostering the development of social skills. Through imaginative play, collaboration, and problem-solving in natural settings, children learn to communicate effectively, negotiate, and build healthy relationships with peers.
  • Appreciation for the Environment and Wildlife: Children naturally feel a sense of wonder and curiosity when exploring the outdoors. There’s so much to see and explore! This connection to nature fosters environmental awareness, appreciation for diverse ecosystems, and an understanding of the delicate balance of the natural world. They learn to respect animals, care for their surroundings, and develop a sense of environmental responsibility.

Intellectual and Cognitive Development

  • Using all of their Senses: Unlike the controlled environment of screens, the outdoors engages all of a child's senses. They can explore textures through touching smooth pebbles, smelling fragrant flowers, listening to chirping birds, and observing the vibrant colors of nature. This sensory stimulation from natural objects enhances learning and cognitive development, fostering curiosity, critical thinking, imagination, and problem-solving skills.
  • Self-reflection in Nature: The tranquility and beauty of nature offer a space for children to de-stress, unwind, and engage in self-reflection. Quiet contemplation amidst the trees or gazing at the clouds can spark creativity, imagination, and introspective thinking, allowing them to connect with their inner selves and develop a sense of peace and well-being.

Building Resilience and Fostering Exploration

  • Building Resilience in an Unfamiliar Environment: Navigating unfamiliar terrain, encountering changing weather conditions, and overcoming challenges during play builds resilience in children. They learn to adapt to new situations, problem-solve independently, and overcome obstacles, fostering a sense of self-confidence and a growth mindset.
  • Developing Interests in New Topics: Exploration in the outdoors can spark curiosity and ignite a passion for new interests. Observing plant life, identifying bird sounds, or collecting interesting rocks can spark your child’s understanding of and love for science, nature, or conservation, opening doors to lifelong learning and exploration.

Opening the Door to Outdoor Play for Kids

While the benefits are clear, providing the opportunity for children to play outside requires more than just telling them to "go play." Here are some ways to foster a love for the outdoors and make it a fun and engaging experience:

  • Make it Fun, Not a Chore or Punishment: Ditch the forced outdoor time and focus on the enjoyment. Your child will take their cues from you, so framing outdoor time as a special part of their schedule, rather than a last resort or just an activity to take up time, will help them see it as an exciting part of their schedule. Frame outdoor play as a fun activity rather than a chore, and your child will be more likely to embrace it. 
  • Explore New Places: Familiarity can mean boredom for little minds. Take your child to new parks, natural trails, or community gardens. Each new environment offers fresh experiences and opportunities for exploration, keeping them engaged and excited about spending time outdoors. You both will enjoy experiencing new places together!
  • Offer Choices: Give your child some control over their outdoor experience. Let them choose which park to visit or what activities they want to do next. This sense of ownership and freedom will make them more invested in the experience.
  • Encourage Solo Play: As your child plays, they may naturally become engrossed in exploring by themselves. Keep a watchful eye on them, but allow them to flex their solo play muscles. Independent play is essential for their cognitive development.
  • Involve Family and Friends: Having friends or family members join the outdoor fun can be incredibly motivating for children. This creates a sense of social connection and shared experience, making them feel more comfortable and confident exploring their surroundings. 
  • Safety First: Always prioritize safety by choosing age-appropriate activities and appropriate supervision. When heading to a neighborhood park or playground, survey the area and equipment first to make sure that this shared community space is free from debris, broken 
  • Dress for the Elements: Make sure your child is prepared for the weather. Check the weather report or app before heading out (especially if you live where weather can change quickly). When you head outdoors, keep sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, gloves or mittens, and snacks at the ready.
  • Pack a Bag: Assemble a backpack with everything you need to create a positive experience outdoors. Include a play mat, some simples toys that you only offer your child outside, a few books, and anything else that can help you create an impromptu outdoor play area for your baby.
  • Read Their Cues: Is your child not having fun? That’s okay! Spending a few minutes outside is better than none at all. If they’re not enjoying being outdoors, try again tomorrow, rather than spoiling the mood. 

Looking for more activities to encourage your toddler to play outdoors? Use Happy Little People Co. activity cards for suggestions, which include nature-based activities in each deck from birth to 5 years old.

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