How to Make the Most of Your Kids’ Outdoor Time
The latest 'Growing Up' column
Want to raise healthier, happier, more successful kids? Send them outdoors to play. Research shows that outdoor play benefits children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development and improves focus, attention, and academic performance. In addition to helping children stay physically fit, outdoor play and exposure to sunlight helps children get enough vitamin D, regulates their sleep cycles, and boosts immune health.
To reap these benefits, experts recommend that kids spend 3 to 6 hours immersed in nature each day. That’s a big leap, considering today’s kids get around 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play daily, per the Child Mind Institute. If spending half the day outdoors isn’t possible, don’t worry. Whether your child spends minutes or hours outdoors, there are some ways to make the most of your child’s time in nature.
Early Years // 0-5: Independence Day
Outdoor play facilitates learning in ways indoor environments can’t match, from simple lessons in cause and effect (what will happen if I drop a rock in this stream?) to lessons about physics, kinesiology, and risk-taking. For the littlest children, caregivers can support learning and growth by simply stepping back and intervening less often, says Anna Sharratt, founder and executive director of Free Forest School, a national nonprofit that facilitates outdoor play and nature immersion outings for children and families.
“We recommend choosing ‘yes’ places to play—places, where you can say ‘yes’ to almost everything your child chooses to do,” she says. “It's better to avoid outdoor areas with significant objective hazards such as cliffs, fast-moving water, or roadsides. Kids that are allowed to take ‘reasonable risks,’ or risks with outcomes that parents and caregivers can stomach, will learn valuable lessons related to cause and effect, risk assessment, and decision-making.”
Elementary Years // 6-12: Wilderness 101
If your child is interested in more structured outdoor activities like rock climbing, hiking, or fishing, consider enrolling them in a beginner’s wilderness course at your local outdoor gear retailer, the American Red Cross, or through a scouting organization. Investing in basic wilderness training helps kids take a more active role in planning and preparation for outdoor activities, builds safety skills, and helps grow confidence and accountability.
They’ll also learn how to stay safe while helping to preserve natural environments by using the seven principles of Leave No Trace, a framework that helps minimize negative impacts on outdoor spaces. “Training and planning are incredibly important concepts and tools for maintaining safety and personal responsibility, and for learning basic outdoor ethics,” says Dave Sperry, director of the Venture Outdoor Leadership Program at the UNC Charlotte. “Wilderness first aid courses include not only basic first aid skills, but how to prevent wilderness-related injuries, manage evacuations, and get extra help if needed.”
Teen Years // 13-18: Pause and Reflect
Building in time for reflection, either during or after your teenager’s outdoor pursuits, increases the learning value exponentially, Sperry says. “Reflection is the biggest piece of the puzzle if your desire is to move from simply having an adventure to learning from an adventure.” Reflection can begin by simply slowing down and being fully present in an outdoor environment—ask your teen to put down their phone and notice the sights, sounds, and smells they’re experiencing. To take the reflection further, pose questions like “How does what I'm doing right now impact what's around me?," “Am I making others' experience more or less enjoyable?,” and “Am I having a positive or negative impact on the environment?”
“At Venture we use a common question sequence of What? So What? Now What? at the end of almost every experience,” Sperry explains. “‘What’ grabbed your attention today or what are you feeling as you think back through the experience? ‘So What,’ or why is that important? And ‘Now What,’ or what are you going to do with your new knowledge or insight?” Asking teens thoughtful questions can encourage the type on introspection that turns an afternoon hike into a meaningful, memorable learning opportunity.
MALIA JACOBSON is a health and family journalist.