Year-Round Outdoor Play is Essential for Kids’ Development by emily davidson
With technology in abundance around us and our climate in crisis, helping children gain an appreciation and connection to nature is more important now than ever. The more opportunities we can provide youth to be outdoors, learning, and playing, the more their understanding of the natural world grows. A solid connection to nature benefits the mind and body and instills a love that can inspire a sense of responsibility to care for the world around us. Nurture and inspire our youth today so that tomorrow, they can champion the Alaskan values that will lead us into a sustainable future for generations to come.
Physical Benefits Kids’ outdoor activities often focus on sports, structured activities, and competitive achievements. Year-round free play, in particular, provides a holistic approach to their physical, mental, and social development. It helps children develop skills and values that will benefit them throughout their life. In today’s digital era, playing outside combats the sedentary lifestyle of phones and video games. In addition to the fresh air, nature provides physical challenges like running freely, climbing rocks, and digging in the dirt. Playing outside has been shown to boost children’s immunity, which is much needed for the colder months ahead.
Emotional and Mental Health Benefits Nature plays a critical role in boosting kids’ mental health by reducing stress and anxiety and increasing a sense of well-being. Hundreds of studies link time in nature to a decrease in stress. It inspires them to be present in their bodies and use their senses, such as listening to the call of a bird, touching the snow, and tasting the berries. The use of our senses in nature is a mindful practice. Calm bodies and minds are essential for optimal health. Free play in nature also creates space for imaginative and creative play, which boosts kids’ cognitive abilities, such as attention span, while inspiring curiosity so that our kids can become lifelong learners.
Social Benefits While playing outside with other children, they learn about teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. Outdoor play involves taking calculated risks, thus teaching kids how to manage and assess risks. These creative problem-solving skills are important to developing responsibility, resilience, and adaptability. Kids can grow up knowing how to stay within the limits of the safety of their bodies. This social and personal awareness leads to higher self-esteem.
Reflecting about Learning Adults must help children reflect on their learning in natural environments. You can support by providing exploration tools such as an observation journal, compass, camera, or small shovel. Ask open-ended questions about what they discovered and encourage them to observe and describe their observations.
Tips for enjoying time outside in the colder months: - Wear weather-appropriate clothing: teach kids how to prepare for spending time outside, such as dressing in layers, avoiding cotton and synthetic clothing items, and packing backup options. - Become part of the community: Anchorage comes alive in the winter with outdoor activities such as ice skating, cross-country skiing on the hundreds of miles of trails nearby and community events such as the NSAA Winter Solstice Tree Tour. This builds community connections that will last for their lifetime. - Get cozy: Going outside doesn’t have to be about high-adventure activities. Set up a backyard wonderland with hot chocolate, blankets, and a bonfire. Quality, cozy time with friends and family is a way to get everyone outside! - Remember safety: Talk to your kids about the importance of staying hydrated, bringing snacks, recognizing signs of trouble, and having a backup plan.
By embracing outdoor play all year around, families can help their kids grow into well-rounded, resilient individuals who respect the natural world. Nature is healing; spending time outside every day, even for a short time, allows our bodies and minds space to experience those benefits. Here in Alaska, with the long winter months, it’s even more important to take extra care of our families to bundle up and head outside!
Emily Davidson is an outdoor and K-12 education professional who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
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