Spending Time Outdoors: A Mother's Perspective on Benefits of Outdoor Play
We lived in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn for the first twenty months of my sons life. We lived on the fourth floor of a monstrous concrete building with windows that didn’t open more than a few inches. The street we lived on was busy- it had very few trees, and the ones that were there were mostly used as doggy toilets. It wasn’t really a suitable place for a toddler to explore. I worked from home and during the day it was just the two of us and we often suffered from major cabin fever. Sometimes I literally felt like I couldn’t breathe being in such a small space without easy access to fresh air. The thing that saved my sanity during those first years of my sons life was that we lived a short stroller ride away from Prospect Park. When the weather was nice we were out of the house and in the park by 8:30 am, came home for lunch and nap and were right back outside in the afternoon. My son was like a different child when we were out amongst the trees and the grass and I quickly realized the importance of children spending time outside in nature.
Fresh air just does something magical for children. In fact, parents in countries like Iceland and Sweden leave their babies in their strollers outdoors to nap because they’ve noticed that the cool, fresh air helps them sleep more soundly. Although my son was not a huge fan of his stroller as an infant, I did get through many a witching hour in those early months by strapping him into a sling and going for walks in the crisp November air. The tummy time he loathed inside our apartment was so much more tolerable for him in the park on a blanket where he had so much more to look at. We may not have had a yard but we had something even better- an entire five hundred and twenty-six-acre park that was ours to explore and explore we did. We joined a Free Forest School as soon as my son started walking and we spent mornings exploring the ravines and trails deep inside the park. We stomped in muddy puddles, discovered ant hills functioning amidst the cracks in the sidewalk and collected as many rocks as we could fit in our pockets. As an early childhood educator, I knew that the benefits of my son spending time in nature went far beyond just giving us a way to pass the time on those long and sometimes lonely afternoons.
The great outdoors is really the ideal classroom for a young child. Children need space to run and move their bodies. Their developing nervous systems need access to lots of sensory input and the sights, smells, and textures of nature are exponentially better than any toy or gizmo you could buy them. Young children naturally seek order and patterns in their environment. They find comfort in knowing that their world is predictable and often experiment with this notion. A toddler flinging their fork off their high chair each time you pick it up isn’t trying to drive you crazy (even though it may seem like it), he is toying with cause and effect, he is testing his understanding of the patterns in his life. “If I do it again, will she respond in the same way?” Nature provides children with a million different ways to explore the predictable patterns they are looking for. Rocks will always make a sound when you throw them against a fence, puddles will always splash when you jump in them, mud will always be squishy and the day will always fade into the night. There are endless opportunities for open-ended play, where a child can experiment with different ways of moving their bodies and using their imaginations. When you watch a child at play it’s easy to dismiss what they are doing as trivial and meaningless but they are really quite intentional in their exploration of the world around them.
So yes, spending time outdoors gives you a way to keep your bouncy little ones busy but it is also crucial to so many aspects of their development. Playing outside addresses each of the critical skills a young child is working on during their first few years of life. They develop gross motor skills by running and jumping, fine motor skills by picking up rocks and sticking them in their little pockets, they learn about math and science by observing the patterns and predictability in nature. There is so much pressure placed on parents today to cultivate their children- we feel the need to buy them the best educational toys, we download apps for them to interact with and enroll them in classes to enrich their little minds when honestly, all we need to do is let them play outside. There is nothing that a child can learn by interacting with a screen that they can’t learn more effectively by interacting with nature- their minds aren’t wired to learn that way. The greatest gift we can give our children is to develop a love of nature and a sense of responsibility for the care of our earth. Your child was born with the urge to run wild and free, so take advantage of that because after all, they can’t bounce off the walls if there are no walls.