10 Evidence-Based Reasons Why Our Children Absolutely Need Outdoor Play

little boy stretches out on the grass of camp kumbayah

Entry by Jessica S. Winn, LMFT, PsyD

Today, in 2018, a new phenomenon has emerged for our children.  While it is not (yet) considered a medical diagnosis, it is the behavioral byproduct we may often be observing in our children without knowing it, informally referred to as ‘nature-deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2005).  As parents, recognizing the fundamental need for our children to play outdoors is intuitive.  It is easy to imagine how outdoor play, where children experience natural exercise, fresh air, and heightened access to their senses, could be connected to social, mental, and physical health.  Yet, we are seriously struggling to meet this inherent need.

Why? For many of us, it can be attributed to our busy work schedules and lack of access to (or lack of interest in) nature.  But the number 1 cause for this shift is our more passive relationship with the sedentary epidemic of handheld screen pacification.  Most of us both endorse and model this new lifestyle for our babies and children.  Research outcomes are calling us into action more than ever before.  Our children need us to get them back outside. 

Long-term, children who grow up with routine outdoor play habits develop a preference for the outdoors and being physically active.  Research suggests they also typically perceive the environment in a way that categorically contrasts those who grow up sequestered from it (Lee, 2012).  Nature-raised children grow into adults who are more likely to seek out natural experiences like sunshine, rain, the sound of a breeze through the trees, the feel of grass, etc.  This cultivates a lifelong proclivity towards enjoying natural, low-cost, good-for-the-environment habits, such as hiking, gardening, jogging, bicycling, etc (Fjortoft, 2001).  

Routinely sending our children outside to play is not merely a leisure (for children and parents alike) that can be eliminated from childhood with no developmental recourse.   Overwhelming evidence now indicates that habitually playing outdoors is vital to the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional health of our current generation of children (Clements, 2004).

Below is an evidence-based list and a printable PDF to remind us of why getting our kids outdoors, daily, is crucial to their development, health, and well-being.



10 Evidence-Based Reasons Why Our
Children Absolutely Need Outdoor Play

group of children play in grass at camp kumbayah in lynchburg virginia

1) Outdoor play improves a child’s ability to learn.

Studies on how young people learn have proven that children acquire knowledge through play, experimentation, exploration, and discovery (Johnson et al., 2005).  Each of these skills is exercised during outdoor play (Moore & Wong, 1997).  Additionally, playing outside increases blood flow to the brain, which delivers the oxygen and glucose needed for processes involving learning.  Building up the body’s level of "brain-derived neurotrophic factor” leads to an increased capacity for learning (Gomez-Pinilla et al., 2008).

2) Outdoor play increases a child’s capacity for memory.

The physical vigor accompanying playing outdoors stimulates cells in a brain region called the dentate gyrus, which is linked with memory (Bruel‐Jungerman et al., 2005).   Research also confirms that children with active cardiovascular lifestyles show greater bilateral hippocampal volumes and superior relational memory task performance compared to more sedentary children (Chaddock et al., 2010).  In addition to improved brain functioning, playing outdoors creates memories that are qualitatively richer, more meaningful, and more valuable-to-them than memories created when sedentary indoors. 

3) Outdoor play is scientifically-linked to decreasing attention problems like ADHD.

A connection exists between attentional issues and deprivation of play in nature (Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004).  After routine, daily intervals of time spent in nature, severity and frequency of symptoms for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are commonly reduced.  It has also been found that ADHD is significantly less prevalent for children in families who grew up with habits playing in nature (Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004).

4) Outdoor play promotes creativity.

kids enjoy water play at camp kumbayah in lynchburg va

The outdoor environment offers unique stimulus that capture children's attention and interest.  Natural resources such as rocks, flowers, sticks, soil, etc. are readily available for a child’s exploration and curiosity.  Because natural elements are open-ended materials, the possibilities for imaginative play are limitless.  Throughout the child’s process of reinvention of these natural resources, the foundational skills of problem-solving, divergent thinking, and creativity are developed and exercised (Bento & Dias, 2017).

5) Outdoor play reduces stress, anxiety, and irritability.

Time spent outdoors has been linked to stress-reduction and prevention of depression (Douglas, 2005; Wells & Evans, 2003). Korpela and Hartig (1996) indicate that, for children, simply spending time out in nature, playing or not, releases tension.  The physical, emotional, and sensorial ’release valves’ organically provided by nature are becoming dangerously scarce in the lives of today’s children.

6) Outdoor play increases a child’s access to uncontrived joy.

Research indicates children of parents who fostered relationships with our natural world to be healthier and happier, now and throughout adulthood (Kemple et al., 2016; Bohling-Phillipi, 2006; Thomas & Harding, 2011).  The holistic well-being of humans is significantly influenced by the quality and frequency of contact with natural systems and processes (Kellert, 2005), a relationship that is being described as our “inherent biological affinity for the natural environment” (p. 49).  Researchers, biologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists who have studied this phenomenon indicate the cause is related to our increasing understanding of an innate ‘human-nature’ connection (Kellert, 2005).  

7) Outdoor play significantly improves physical health.

The real benefit of outdoor play is that, when children grow up playing outdoors, they become lost in it, doing what comes naturally.  While it uses their muscles, burns calories, and keeps them flexible, children typically don’t experience their physical play as exercise (Green & Hargrove, 2012).  Research indicates fine and gross motor development are significantly utilized during outdoor play (Kemple et al., 2016; Thomas & Harding, 2011).  Additionally, outdoor play improves lung function, contributes to muscle, bone, and joint health; and strengthens the heart (Bell et al., 2008).

8) Outdoor play is statistically linked to protecting children from nearsightedness.

beautiful flowers on the grounds of camp kumbayah

Myopia has become increasingly common among young children in recent decades.  It is linked to excessive time kids spend viewing backlit materials like electronic screens (Rose et al., 2008).  According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Optometry (2009), nearsightedness in children is now occurring at a rate of 6 of every 10 children who spend 0-5 hours outside, weekly.  The risk drops to 2 in 10 when outdoor time increases to 14 hours or more (Reutgers, 2009). The relationship between up-close screen use, such as backlit tablets, game devices, smart phones, etc. and myopia is preventable and profound.

9) Outdoor play is instinctual and generational.

Outdoor play taps into our DNA-encoded memory, connecting us to emotions, patterns of thought and fragments of experience that have been transmitted from generation to generation in all humans. Our ancestors relied on their physical strength, keen observation and relationship with their environment. In our modern world, unstructured outdoor play creates space for us to access depths of consciousness connected to our “long inheritance of a nomadic ancestry” (Olsen,1976).  This is not just natural; it is essential to our health.

10) Outdoor play cultivates a life-long relationship between humans and our planet.

Children whose relationships with our natural world have been nurtured (rather than pruned out) are more likely to possess a deep and abiding regard for preserving, protecting, and prioritizing the physical health of our life-supporting planet (Thomas & Harding, 2011; Phenice & Griffore, 2003; Fjortoft, 2001; Sobel, 1996).  Cultivating this relationship between people and nature is the primary tool for protecting our Earth for future generations (Kellert, 2005).  Our planet is a gift, and raising humans who prioritize it is as important as life itself.



Jessica S. Winn, LMFT, PsyD

Jessica S. Winn, LMFT, PsyD

Jessica S. Winn, LMFT, PsyD, received her master’s and doctoral degrees in Clinical Psychology from the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She completed her post-doctoral residency in California at the Hume Center’s Partial Hospitalization Program, a community mental health non-profit organization.  Here she served patients with severe and persistent mental illness experiences by providing individual, group, family, couple, and milieu therapy.

Dr. Winn’s breadth of clinical experience spans the course of 16 years. She has done extensive therapeutic work at: group homes with adjudicated youth & their families; drug & alcohol residential treatment facilities; retirement home end-of-life rites-of-passage work; behavior modification treatment programs for children & teens; and clinic & home-based marriage and family therapy.  Her training at Prescott College in Arizona gave her the foundational knowledge for utilizing nature as a therapeutic medium for children, teens, and families.  Dr. Winn specializes in parenting skills development with nuclear, single-parent, divorced, and blended families, and has enjoyed working as a consultant to therapists, teachers, case managers, nurses, psychiatrists, and primary care physicians.  She is currently teaching graduate psychology classes to students at the University's Master's program.

Dr. Winn has come to value experientially-oriented therapeutic treatment paradigms for co-creating the emotionally corrective experiences needed to break dysfunctional patterns that impair quality of life.  It is no surprise she attests that these experiences are best facilitated in nature.

Dr. Winn currently resides in Forest, Virginia with her family.  She enjoys outdoor and community-based activities with her spouse and their collective six children, ranging in age from 9 months to 10 years. Dr. Winn values hard work along with the physical act of playing – including climbing, planting, swimming, challenging her kids to "dance-offs," and digging her roots deep within the community where she resides.  Dr. Winn dedicates time to the daily practices of gratitude, mindfulness, heartfelt service, and the spiritual practice of simple kindness in both her professional and her personal life.



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