Girls play in a flowery fieldChildren benefit from time spent playing outdoors and in nature. Often, children today spend a lot of their time in highly structured indoor activities. Recess is being eliminated in many school districts so children can spend more time engaged in rigorous classroom study. Fears for their safety also keep many children inside.

Research indicates, however, that children benefit in many ways from unstructured or free, outdoor play. Nature stimulates and rewards children's inherent curiosity. Outside, children can explore, practice, and play with all their senses. Children run, jump, skip, climb, and effortlessly burn lots of calories when they play outside. With childhood obesity on the rise, outdoor play should not be overlooked. Children and adults alike often find natural places a soothing antidote to stress.

Finding or creating safe, unstructured time outside for your child is a worthwhile task. Nature might be a patch of dirt in your backyard, the park at the end of your street, or the acre of woods down the road. More important than having lots of outdoor space is letting children play freely outside.

Richard Louv, the author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, comments: "We should not think of a child's experience in nature as an extracurricular activity. It should be thought of as vital to children's health and development."

Helpful links

BBC Lifestyle. (2006). Gardening with children - Sensory plants.

BBC News. (July 5, 2005). TV may stunt toddlers' learning.

Children & Nature Network

Gomes, Filomena. (2001). Soil, sand and seeds - helping children grow. NY Metro Parents Magazine.

Johansson Design Collaborative Landscape Architecture. (2006). The Rusk Children's PlayGarden for Interactive Therapeutic Play.

Rivkin, Mary S. (2000). Outdoor experiences for young children.

White, Randy & Stoecklin, Vicki. (1998). Children's Outdoor Play & Learning Environments: Returning to Nature.

(Photo courtesy of Free Play Network)