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Benefits of Outdoor Play

Thursday, March 31, 2016

My fondest childhood memories are of playing outside. I was fortunate to grow up in the Honeoye valley where creek beds, woods, and the lake were my playground. Hours were spent pretending, hiking, climbing, and getting dirty. My mom made my sisters and I go outside pretty much every day, year round to “get the stink blown off us.” Translation - go outside, get your energy out, explore, and when you’re tired and hungry, come back! Turns out, my mom instinctively knew what science now confirms – that is, outdoor play is essential to a child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity. Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts. The great outdoors can move children away from the passive entertainment of computers and TV and into an interactive forum that engages both mind and body.” That is, playing outside by oneself or with a few friends is good for the body and imagination. The CDC, the AAP, and numerous other health and educational institutions now recommend increased outdoor play for all children.

This push is based on alarming statistics and trends; the most sobering of these being obesity and ADHD statistics. According to the CDC, the overall childhood obesity rate is almost 18%. The most recent CDC numbers indicate that 8.4% of 2- to 5-year-olds are obese compared with 17.7% of 6- to11-year-olds and 20.5% of 12- to 19-year-olds. In addition, many children struggle with behavioral and school issues as a result of ADHD. 11% of American children, ages 4-17, have been diagnosed with ADHD, a 42% increase over the past 8 years. At the same time these numbers were increasing, the level of outdoor play was decreasing. AUniversity of Michigan Institute for Social Research study compared data from 1981-1982 with numbers from 2002-2003. What they found is that the average boy or girl spent about 15 minutes per day playing outside in the early 80s and by 2002-03, that time was down to 4-7 minutes per day. In fact, a Children and Nature Network report, noted that by 2008, only 6% of children, ages 9-13, played outside independently. By looking at all these trends, researchers are now seeing significant connections between the increase in obesity and ADHD and the limited time in good old-fashioned outdoor play free of adult intervention.

Childhood obesity is on the rise. While processed, calorie-laden, nutrient poor diets are one reason for this increase, lack of activity is the other major cause. Children spend on average 7 hours per day on media including TV, computers, phones, and other electronic devices. Studies have proven that excessive use of electronic devices leads to a myriad of issues including attention problems. Outdoor play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic.”

While the connection between outdoor play and weight management is common sense, the link to ADHD was not obvious until the past few years. A number of studies have now shown the correlation between outdoor, green space activity and a lessening of ADHD and hyperactivity symptoms. One of the most notable was a 2011 University of Illinois study published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Researchers found that ADHD diagnosed children who regularly played in outdoor settings with lots of green (grass and trees, for example) had milder ADHD symptoms than those who played indoors or on built outdoor environments (playgrounds). The study’s authors noted that the findings are correlational. This means that the findings alone do not prove that routine playtime in green space reduces symptom severity. The University of Illinois publication noted, however, that “in light of all the previous studies showing a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to nature and improved concentration and impulse control, it is reasonably safe to guess that that’s true here as well.”

Playing outside is not the panacea to all ills but it is definitely part of the solution.

Children who play outside are less stressed, enjoy enhanced friendships, and even perform better on critical thinking tests. Keeping these benefits in mind, the American Academy of Pediatricians now recommends 60 minutes daily of unstructured free play (in or outdoors without media). To top it off, playing outside is just good old-fashioned fun! Psychcentral.com blogger, Margarita Tartakovsky recommends the following outdoor activities for kids with ADHD (or any kid for that matter):

Structured and simple activities – tag, yoga, kickball, or frisbee

Team sports – if your child likes team sports, consider: soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, football, or tennis.

Individual activities – if your child likes individual sports, try running, swimming, biking, or rock climbing.

Natural activities – children are curious, engage them in bird watching, hunting for bugs, a nature scavenger hunt (find an acorn, find a small white rock, etc.), or take them hiking

Yard work – make chores a family fun event – children can help with fence painting, raking leaves and grass, pulling weeds, hauling mulch, and planting seeds

Nature as a classroom – for some kiddos, reading or doing math might be easier out in the yard free of a desk or indoor “rules” – experiment and see what works for your child.

For more information on the benefits of outdoor play, visit the National Wildlife Federation at: http://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Kids-and-Nature.aspx . For a list of fun outdoor kid activities, check out: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2012/03/50-simple-outdoor-activities-for-kids.html. If all else fails, talk with a Grandma or Grandpa and ask them what they did as kids for fun outside!

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville. If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.

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