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By: Malia Jacobson

Today’s children are suffering from a nature deficit. Volumes of research show that kids have less unstructured play time than their parents did and spend less of that play time outdoors. In a study published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, over 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day as a child, but just 30 percent said their own children did the same. Researchers say this shortage of outdoor play is hurting kids because children who spend more time in nature reap academic, social, emotional and physical gains—they’re smarter, happier, and more fit and focused than their less-outdoorsy peers. Ready to begin encouraging an enduring love of nature? Here’s how to get your kiddo off the couch and into the great outdoors, from toddlerhood into the teen years.

Early years 0-5: Explore outdoors
For little ones, outdoor play delivers a hands-on learning that ignites the five senses: Think squishing mud through their fingers, watching bugs march across the sidewalk, and splashing in puddles. Since very young kids can’t roam outdoors unsupervised, much of their outdoor play will take place in their own backyard. Caretakers can easily create an outdoor space that ignites creative, brain-building play for tots, using basic, inexpensive materials, says Mary Kingsley, director and lead teacher at The Kinder Garden Preschool in Raleigh, North Carolina, a nature-based school where most of the kids’ time is spent outside.

“Children are natural scientists. Placing stumps and logs in the area and allowing them to naturally decompose can offer excellent learning opportunities about nature. Kids can watch for the bugs that help the process, like Bess beetles, worms, ants and termites,” she says. Turn an old sandbox into a site for sensory play by swapping out the contents periodically: Using rice, dried beans, birdseed, or dried corn along with funnels and measuring cups lets kids explore a variety of textures. Provide a bin of water and a few cups, spoons and pans for a “mud kitchen,” and kids can spend hours in happy, messy outdoor play.

Elementary years 6-12: Backyard buddies
While tots are usually enthusiastic about outdoor play, school-age children may need a bit more coaxing. Per the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids over eight use smartphones or other screen-based devices nearly seven hours daily; getting kids to leave their online world and head into the real one takes some effort. School-age children are naturally drawn to environments that are more social, says Kingsley. So make outdoor play a shared adventure: draw up a nature scavenger hunt for kids to compete with friends, take part in the rock-painting craze and allow kids to paint, hide and search for rocks with pals, or simply set up a sprinkler on a hot day. 

Consider investing in large-scale play equipment like a climbing gym, treehouse, or trampoline to attract kids and their friends to the backyard for active play. Of course, kids need time to unwind on their own, too. Creating a quiet space with a hammock or a shaded area under a canopy can encourage kids to spend time in nature reading, reflecting, and relaxing.

Teen years 13-18: Green goals
Teens need outdoor time much as their younger counterparts, says Julie Kandall, educational director of the Columbus Pre-School in New York City. “For older tweens and teens, finding time to unplug from their phones, iPads, computers and other forms of technology and spend time outdoors is essential for the development of brain pathways as well as developing all the senses.” As teens seek to define themselves and their identity, volunteer work and entrepreneurship offer opportunities to build outdoor time into a busy schedule while earning cash and rounding out college applications.
Teen volunteers can help maintain hiking trails, hand out water at a marathon aid station, pull weeds at a community garden or work with young kids as a camp counselor. Those with an entrepreneurial streak can bolster their bank accounts as a dog walker, house painter, power washer or lawn mower. Earning certifications that translate into outdoor work lets teens develop their budding sense of self and provides opportunities to earn money outdoors; contact your local parks department to learn more about certifying as a lifeguard or referee. These skills may or may not end up carrying over into your teens’ eventual career, but they’ll foster a love of the outdoor world that won’t fade.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published journalist. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.