Celebrate spring: get kids outside, doing stuff

three photos: a young girl in a field of flowers with a butterfly net, kids in the woods carrying a tree branch, kids playing hide and seek at a park

Remember building forts, chasing butterflies, and playing hide-n-seek? Will your kids have those memories too? No? It’s not too late to change that!

Discover near-endless benefits

Today’s kids spend lots less time outside than their parents and grandparents did. The Child Mind Institute, in a post by Danielle Cohen titled, "Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature," says that “The average American child spends about 4 to 7 minutes a day playing outside...” Some screen time, especially using quality, educational apps and programs, is great, and technology can even help little ones learn about and appreciate nature, but the post points out that too many kids are now spending the equivalent of an entire work day or school day looking at a screen, at the expense of run-around-outside time.

Cohen notes that “Many researchers agree that kids who play outside are happier, better at paying attention and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.” The post also suggests that time spent playing outside, among other things, “builds confidence,” “promotes creativity and imagination,” “teaches responsibility” (via caring for living things), “gets kids moving,” and “reduces stress and fatigue.” 

And Outward Bound, known for its intense, mettle-testing outdoor adventures, in “How Much Outside Time a Day Is Recommended for Kids,” goes so far as to suggest that “If children aren’t spending time outside in an unstructured way, they won’t appreciate or understand how to structure the chaos of life once they’ve grown up.” They also add development of critical thinking skills and coordination and strength to the long list of benefits to spending time outdoors.

Plant a seed, watch a bird
little boy using garden tools in a raised garden box with plants growing

Of course, it doesn’t require an Outward Bound-sized challenge for time outside to be of value. Below are 10 ways to get kids outdoors:

• Plant a garden or weed one
• Pick up sticks in the yard
• Take a walk
• Build a fort in a woodlot
• Go for a bike ride
• Head to the park or playground
• Pack a picnic
• Put together an outdoor play date
• Grab binoculars and go birdwatching
• Play catch or tag

three kids in the woods with binoculars birdwatching: three photo inserts in top left corner of an American Goldfinch, a Baltimore Oriole, and a Indigo Bunting

Taking kids outside is also a wonderful opportunity to learn about nature, science, and life cycles, especially in spring. Pair some of the best of screen time with nature by watching the Exploring Nature videos on School Zone’s Anywhere Teacher online learning program. The series includes The Life Cycle of Butterflies and The Life Cycle of Apple Trees. Being outside, even in just the yard or garden, is the ideal place to “review” and see with one’s own eyes, those awe-inspiring cycles of seed to tree and caterpillar to winged jewel.

Another way to integrate outdoor time with technology is to come home and search the things kids have discovered outdoors. With an app like iNaturalist, all one has to do is hover a cell phone camera over an insect, plant, or caterpillar to get an ID and look up more information about it later on.

See more clearly in more ways than one
 aerial view of an oval playground area with colorful equipment surrounded by a wooded park

We know that the joy of exploring the outdoors and all its treasures is special, but self-discovery is yet another gift. Miracle Recreation, a company that started in 1927 making merry-go-grounds and has designed and manufactured commercial playground equipment since the late ‘40s, including themed playscapes, states as one of its values, “We believe freedom of exploration allows for self-discovery, creating more independent individuals that are confident in their choices.”

They further note that “studies have shown that outdoor play helps children build their sense of independence. Parents are usually near, but playing at the park gives children a feeling of freedom they rarely experience in other settings.”

Time outside can even help children’s eyesight! Multiple studies, as noted in a review in Acta Ophthalmologica by Xiong and co-authors, have found that “Outdoor time is considered to reduce the risk of developing myopia” or nearsightedness. A variety of sources suggest it’s the interaction/chemical reaction between sunlight and the retina that produce this protective quality, and another theory relates to shifting the gaze (outside) from near to faraway objects vs. excessive up-close work and play.

Everyone benefits from getting outdoors, so make it a priority and pencil it into the whole family’s calendar and “to-do list.”

Family of six running on a paved path with a covered bridge in the background