Health Benefits and Tips

In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American child spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.

This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last 20 years; the United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world; and pediatric prescriptions for antidepressants have risen precipitously.

Photo of two kids reading in nature, Shutterstock

Benefits to Body, Mind, and Spirit

Our kids are out of shape, tuned out, and stressed out because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world. According to the report, Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body, and Spirit Through Outdoor Play, the benefits of getting kids in nature can be seen on many levels.




Closeup of child planting, ShutterstockDirt Improves Health and Happiness

While many times getting our hands dirty is frowned upon, the National Wildlife Federation's report—The Dirt on Dirt: How Getting Dirty Outdoors Benefits Kids—has some new facts and figures that may have parents steering their kids toward the nearest mud puddle. Getting a little dirty in the great outdoors—far from being a bad thing—helps children lead happier, healthier lives.

When we let our kids play in dirt, we're not only allowing them to explore the wonders around them, we are also exposing them to healthy bacteria, parasites, and viruses that will inevitably create a much stronger immune system. Many kids who live in an ultra-clean environment have a greater chance of suffering from allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases that we would otherwise be protected from through the simple pleasure of playing with some nice common dirt.

Studies have shown that simply having contact with dirt, whether it's through gardening, digging holes, or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child's mood and reduce anxiety and stress. With antidepressant use in kids on the rise, an increasing number of experts are recognizing the role of nature in enhancing kids' mental health. Dirt can even improve classroom performance.

Child in water, ShutterstockOutdoor Time Improves Sleep

Many U.S. parents are surprised to learn that their children suffer from persistent sleep deprivation—as much as two hours per day. There are numerous reasons: busy schedules, addiction to television and electronic games, and lack of knowledge about the amount needed. According to the National Wildlife Federation's report, Green Time for Sleep Time: Three Ways Nature and Outdoor Time Improve Your Child’s Sleep, the reality is American children are spending an average of more than seven hours a day staring at electronic media entertainment. Building some outdoor time into children's schedules will help them get a better night’s sleep and receive the associated physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits. Here are three ways outdoor time improves a child’s sleep:

Family on Pacific Crest Trail, BLMBalancing Screen Time and Green Time

How do parents balance the role of technology in their kids’ lives with the simple pleasures and lasting benefits of outdoor play? Better yet, how do they use technology to get kids moving, exploring, and interacting with the outdoor world around them?

The National Wildlife Federation takes an in-depth look at how to balance screen time with green time in the report, Friending Fresh Air: Connecting Kids to Nature in the Digital Age, offering insight on how to use technology and still connect your kids to nature.

Technology can be a wonderful tool for learning and playing, but kids require a balance of screen and green experiences to grow up happy and healthy. Kids, and even parents, need time to recharge their own batteries, so it's also important to remember the value of unplugging completely and enjoying some disconnected time to connect with nature.

Helpful tips for bridging the indoor/outdoor gap with technology:

Tips for Healthcare Providers

By recommending that patients establish healthy behaviors early, such as daily time outdoors, medical doctors and mental health practitioners can help reduce negative impacts on kids’ health. By taking the following actions, healthcare providers can lead the charge toward whole child wellness:

Hofferth, Sandra and John Sandberg (1999), “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981-1997,” University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Juster, F. Thomas et al. (2004). “Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003,”Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

Rideout, Victoria et al. (2010). "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Division of Adolescent and School Health. Childhood Obesity. 20 Oct. 2008.

Sax, Leonard, “Ritalin - Better Living Through Chemistry?” The World and I. Nov. 1, 2000.

Delate T, Gelenberg AJ, Simmons VA, Motheral BR. (2004) "Trends in the use of antidepressant medications in a nationwide sample of commercially insured pediatric patients, 1998-2002." Psychiatric Services. 55(4):387-391.

CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Division of Adolescent and School Health. Childhood Obesity. 20 Oct. 2008.

American Academy of Pediatrics. “Many Children have suboptimal Vitamin D Levels,” Pediatrics. October 26, 2009.

What's Hot in Myopia Research-The 12th International Myopia Conference, Australia, July 2008.

Wells, N.M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of “greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior (32), 6, pp 775-795.

Bartosh, Oksana. Environmental Education: Improving Student Achievement. Thesis. Evergreen State College, 2003.

Ernst, Julie (Athman) and Martha Monroe. “The effects of environment-based education on students’ critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking.” 10.4 Environmental Education Research, Nov. 2004.

Kuo, PhD, Frances E., and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD. "A Potential Natural Treatment for AttentionDeficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study." American Journal of Public Health 94.9. Sept. 2004.

Ginsburg, MD MSEd, Kenneth R. Committee on Communications, and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” 119.1

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). “Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1315-1329.

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