Health Benefits

Boy with binoculars

Remember playing outside until mom called you in for dinner? Today’s kids probably won’t.

In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl 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.1,2,3

This shift inside profoundly impacts the wellness of our nation’s kids. Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled 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.4,5,6

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.


  • Outdoor play increases fitness levels and builds active, healthy bodies, an important strategy in helping the one in three American kids who are obese7 get fit.
  • Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.8
  • Being out there improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.9
  • Exposure to natural settings may be widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.10
  • Schools with environmental education programs score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing and listening.11
  • Exposure to environment-based education significantly increases student performance on tests of their critical thinking skills.12
  • Children’s stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces.13
  • Play protects children’s emotional development whereas loss of free time and a hurried lifestyle can contribute to anxiety and depression.14
  • Nature makes you nicer, enhancing social interactions, value for community and close relationships.15

Download our fact sheet!  


1 Less Free Time: During the last 30 years, the amount of children's free time has declined, in favor of more structured activities.  For example, between 1981-1997, unstructured outdoor activities fell by 50%.

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

2 Outside Time vs. Inside Time: Research shows that children are spending half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago – and much more time doing "inside" activities.

Study: Juster, F. Thomas et al. (2004).  "Changing Times of American Youth: 1981-2003", Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Child Development Supplement 

3 Too Much Screen Time: The average American child spends 44 hours per week (more than 6 hours a day!) staring at some kind of electronic screen.

Study: Rideout, Victoria et al. (2005).  Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

4 Childhood Obesity: The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 more than doubled in the past 20 years, to 17 percent of children in this age group. The rate of clinically obese adolescents (aged 12-19) more than tripled, to 17.6 percent. The Centers for Disease Control concludes that a major missing ingredient is an hour per day of moderate physical activity.

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

5 Increased Use of Ritalin in Children: In 2000, one out of every eight American children was taking Ritalin for treatment of behavioral disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Researchers hypothesized that an increase in television viewing, as well as greater academic pressure at an earlier age, was contributing to increased usage.

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

6 Increased Use of Anti-Depressants in Children: The use of anti-depressants in children grew between 1998 and 2002 from 1.6% to 2.4%, an adjusted annual increase of 9.2%. The growth in antidepressant use was greater among girls (a 68% increase) than among boys (a 34% increase.)

Study: 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.

7 Surge in Childhood Obesity: In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than tripled.  The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008. During the same time period, the prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5.0% to 18.1%.

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

8 Lack of Vitamin D and Health Issues: Many children in the U.S., especially minorities, need more Vitamin D. Spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, protecting children from bone problems and other health issues.

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


9 Near-Sightedness: In several studies reported in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, researchers found that kids who spent more time outside during the day tended to have better distance vision than those who favored indoor activities.

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

10 Natural Settings and Cognitive Behavior: Children who are exposed to natural or outdoor settings receive benefits to their cognitive health, such as reduction of ADHD symptoms.

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

11 School Performance: Offering environmental education programs in school improves standardized test scores.

Study: Bartosh, Oksana. Environmental Education: Improving Student Achievement. Thesis. Evergreen State College, 2003. Web. 2003.pdf.
12 Critical Thinking: Through environmental education offered in schools, students increase their critical thinking skills of performance on tests.

Study: 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.
13 Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Researchers at University of Illinois report findings that indicate exposure to natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be "widely effective" in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children.

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

14 Importance of Play: Play protects children's emotional development; whereas a loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety, and may even contribute to depression for many children.

Study: 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 (2007). American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 2007.

15 Nature Makes You Nicer: Increased time in nature makes one nicer, enhances social interactions and more.

Study: 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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