The modern world has us spending most of our time indoors, working or in front of screens. Outdoor play is vital at all stages of life, but especially in childhood.
By Janine, Contributing Writer
Our modern lives are overscheduled and overstressed, and that includes the lives of our children. We spend most of our days indoors under fake lighting and breathing stale air. We sit at desks hunched over paperwork or school work with pencils in our hands for hours. Then we relax by playing computer or video games. None of this is good for the long-term health of our bodies, and especially not bodies that are still growing!
Many people are claiming that sitting is the new smoking and that we should all get up and move our bodies to maintain excellent health. Our children are some of the first couple of generations who spend the majority of their times indoors. There are studies that show that even just short breaks from sitting to take a quick walk around can lower glucose levels in those with diabetes (1).
Could all this sitting be part of what is causing the epidemic of obesity in our young children?
The research goes back many years in favor of ample outdoor time for children. Some even believe that it could be life-saving for children to spend time outdoors. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, was a huge advocate for children having outdoor time. So much so that he incorporated it as a vital part of the child’s day while at one of his schools.
Children in Waldorf schools spend many hours outside playing and learning through play in all weather conditions for the whole school year. Many of Steiner’s schools include caring for small farm animals and tending to vegetable gardens as a regular part of the children’s day. Through these activities, children learn about how to care for beings besides themselves. They also learn where their food comes from, and have fun in the process.
Eurythmy is a class that is taught in Steiner Schools. It is a dance-like class where the students are taught to tell a story through the emotion of their movement. And movement is incorporated into learning things like math by moving in circles with other students or throwing small bean bags back and forth. He believed that using all parts of the brain helps to cement the information in the student’s mind in a way that doing only book work cannot. Having outdoor learning time can serve a similar function since different parts of the brain are activated when we are in nature.
Denmark was the leader in the outdoor kindergarten movement many years ago. Children there have been attending kindergarten classes that are completely outdoors in all seasons for many years, decades even. The parents there do not find it weird at all to suit up their young children in snowsuits and hats to send them to school for a day outside in the winter. These children spend the day learning about their environment through exploration and play and their teachers are trained to teach in a more organic way.
In North America, in more recent years Forest Schools have become more common, and they follow the same philosophies as the schools in Denmark. Often times these schools are financially out of reach for many families since tuition costs can be high. In addition, time spent traveling to these schools is often too much to incorporate into the parents’ lives. But there are other ways parents can get their children out in nature that do not involve a special school.
Every parent can make a more concerted effort to get their children outside to play more often. You don’t need a fancy Waldorf school or private forest school to have your children get more outside time. Start by focusing on the time you do get to spend together. Is this before and after school, in the evening and on the weekend? That’s great! Here are some ideas for incorporating more outdoor time:
- Go for a morning walk together.
- If your city allows, buy a couple of chickens to care for and get eggs from.
- Go to the beach on the weekend to let your kids explore.
- Camp out in your own backyard and look at the stars.
- Have children help with outdoor tasks like raking and shoveling, even when they’re small.
- Visit your local trails to identify native plant species.
- Try snowshoeing in the winter to observe wildlife in the winter.
- Spend more time at parks and let your children experiment with how their bodies work when navigating the playground equipment.
The key is to let your children learn and experience things through their body and not their head and to get their blood circulating through their bodies.
Benefits for Their Health
There are numerous health benefits to being outside for your children. Often times the air inside a home or building is much more polluted than the air outside, even in a city! Getting outside and breathing fresh air into their lungs is hugely beneficial.
There is said to be beneficial bacteria in the soil that could help boost a child’s immune system and help to keep them healthy. But they shouldn’t go and eat the dirt! Simply being outside and playing in a natural environment is enough.
Children who spend ample time outdoors are found to be more emotionally stable than children who are kept inside. Children exposed to the constant and unnatural noises inside of buildings are found to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, in their bodies, and their level of reading comprehension is decreased (2).
The benefits of outdoor time are immense!