Being outside can be really fun if you make it fun. My daughter, Emilia, and I love to play outside. Emilia loves exploring the yard. She will dig holes, move rocks and jump in puddles. Our favorite thing to do together is go for walks around the neighborhood when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. Emilia can walk forever. We love to water the plants with the hose and watch them grow. Playing outside with my child is all fun and games. It can also be educational and help support my daughter's cognitive, mental and physical health.
There is a lot of research about how being outside can help kids with executive functions like following directions, working cooperatively and figuring out problems. Some of this is what motivated Katie Macaulay to found Santa Fe Mountain Kids, a nature-based children's camp program. As director there and a mom of two, she focuses on getting more kids to spend time outside having fun and learning about their environment. According to Macaulay, spending time playing together solving problems outside, helping each other out and asking questions really promotes positive social development. She says it creates a community of kids being positive role models for each other.
I notice that Emilia seems to play well with kids of different ages. Knowing how to interact with other kids is important because she is learning how to work as a team. According to research cited by the Office of Head Start, she is also learning to "play more creatively" because "children who play outside regularly have more active imaginations."
One thing that I notice about these experts is that they talk a lot about learning. A parenting website of the Australian government explains that "[p]preschoolers want to learn how things work, and they learn best through play. Children at play are solving problems, experimenting, thinking and learning all the same time." Emilia learns how to problem solve when she digs holes in the yard and fills them back up. When she's digging holes, she is learning how much dirt she has to to take out to make a big hole. When she's filling her holes with rocks that she finds, she is learning how many rocks it takes to fill up a hole. Just filling a hole, she is already learning basic math!
With her hands in the dirt and around rocks, she is also using many different senses: She's seeing how the dirt and rocks get mixed together. She can feel the dirt get inside her fingernails. She can smell the dirt when she throws it in the air. She can hear the rocks clicking when she bangs them together. Playing outside helps us connect to our senses, even senses we don't think about having.
According to the authors of a Wisconsin state publication about "Nature Play for Healthy Child Development, "We usually think of five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. But two more 'hidden' senses play vital roles in everyday functioning. Our vestibular sense helps us balance and orient ourselves … Proprioception is our sense of knowing where our bodies are in space." When Emilia learned how to walk on rocks in our backyard she stretched her arms out to help her balance. Not only did she learn balance, but she also learned how to control her body and to be aware of her surroundings.
My guess is that because she learned how to stay balanced by playing outside, Emilia will feel more comfortable challenging herself to balance on bigger rocks, trees or logs. The Australian parenting site and Singapore Government's Baby Bonus website support this aspect of outdoor play: "'Risky' play experiences are an important part of how your child learns and develops. They help your child understand her limits, think for herself, cope with challenges and gain self-confidence." When kids take reasonable risks and experience success they feel better about themselves and about the rewards of trying something new. Natural environments benefit our children by improving their confidence and self esteem.
Journalist Danielle Cohen writes about the advantages of outdoor play in a ChildMind article called "Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature." She writes, "most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors." Experiencing these benefits makes kids more likely to choose playing outside because it makes them feel better about themselves, other people and the world around them.
This is good because being outside helps keep children physically healthy, too. It promotes motor skills, development, balance and physical fitness and exposes them to vitamin D, which offers health benefits, such as strengthening bones and helping to prevent heart disease. According to research cited by Head Start Body Start, "children who play outdoors regularly … become fitter and leaner" and "develop stronger immune systems." I notice that Emilia does not get as sick as most of the other kids she plays with. I think I can notice some of the negative effects when I observe my three-year-old cousin. He is often sick and prefers to stay in front of a screen for hours rather than play outside.
To grab his attention you need to call him a couple times before he hears you, and it is almost impossible to get him to look away from the screen. He seems to have a hard time solving problems and handling situations outside of his living room. Emilia, on the other hand, has learned how to pay attention and make her way around obstacles. For example, Emilia's ball got stuck in the fence last spring at this cousin's birthday party. He didn't know what to do, but Emilia did a couple of things. She tried grabbing the ball with her hand, but that didn't work, so she started to throw rocks at the ball, which didn't work either. Finally, she kicked at the ball until it was loose enough to get it out with her hands. We cheered for her, and she got positive reinforcement for solving a problem creatively.
Playing outside in nature, even just our backyard, helps with Emilia's cognitive development and is actually part of her education. When she starts school, Emilia will be more likely to be able to focus and engaged in learning. Macaulay has done research that supports how playing outdoors transfers to better learning in school. She loves watching kids get excited about things they learn while exploring nature—and how "they take their curiosity to school." As a parent, I love watching Emilia get curious about her surroundings as she plays. I think it is also healthy for the parents who are out there doing all these things with their children instead of being inside on television or smart phone screens.
After doing this research, I think that playing outside is one of the best things you can do with children. Having fun exploring the natural world helps them in so many ways. I can see the positive effects of playing outside in my daughter right away when we're out there together, but these effects will also apply to her as she grows up. The brain and health benefits of playing in nature are likely to help Emilia have a brighter future in school and wherever she goes.
As Emilia gets older, I want her to keep wanting to learn more about everything and to keep being curious about her world. Data from 2010 Nielsen Company report show that kids ages two to five spend more than 32 hours a week in front of a television or computer screen. It's probably even more than that now because more kids have smartphones and computers. As my daughter grows, I don't want her to stay in front of a screen like most kids do. I hope she continues to enjoy exploring and, by doing this, to learn to care for her environment. Macaulay says that kids who play outside learn that we are more than just us "and become more interested in protecting wild places they love." The future of our planet depends on our children, so they need to learn to appreciate it. Emilia and I are starting in our backyard.
Angelikue Bolaños completed the Mother Tongue Project English class and Mentor program at Capital High School, where she wrote this essay (and many others). She also co-composed and presented an original poem for the 2019 New Mexico Public Education Department Town Hall Event in Support of Young Parents. Angie will graduate from Capital High in 2020 and is interested in pursuing a career in social work.