Children and the Outdoors: Why It Matters, According to Science
By Abram Herman
At 8 years old I was slogging my way up the trail behind my parents, tired and disgruntled. “I hate hiking,” I thought. “Why would anyone want to walk uphill for hours for no good reason? I could be watching TV right now.”
Finally, we reached the top. Out came the lunch we’d packed, and we sat on a peaceful summit admiring the view and enjoying our hard-earned lunch, which tasted so much better after the work we’d just put in. Maybe this “hiking” thing wasn’t so bad, after all!
As an adult I enjoy hiking, climbing, mountain biking, camping, skiing, and pretty much anything else that gets me outside and breathing hard in the fresh air of Colorado. It’s how I stay fit, and even more than that, it’s how I maintain my happiness and mental health through the stress of running a business and staying involved with my community. I know that time spent in the outdoors is a huge part of what makes me a whole person.
But what impact, in a quantifiable sense, did my early introduction to the outdoors have on who I’ve become as an adult? How has it affected me physically, mentally, emotionally—and even morally? As it turns out, there’s actually hard science we can look at when seeking to connect childhood exposure to outdoor activities with these long-term outcomes.
It’s no secret that children are more often neglecting physical, outdoor forms of play in favor of the digital world. Computers, mobile devices, video games—all these new types of entertainment have been designed with an express focus on activating the reward centers of the brain in order to increase the devices’ use, and even to create dependence in their users. One of the main struggles for parents in the modern age is reducing kids’ screen time.
These digital temptations are purely passive forms of entertainment, and they don’t promote physical coordination, strength, endurance, or any of the other attributes necessary for a healthy body. Outdoor play, on the other hand, encourages all of these things, and it is a natural method of encouraging this kind of physical activity in young people.n.
A 2015 metanalysis of studies regarding the effects of time spent outdoors on children found that, “outdoor time is positively related to physical activity and negatively related to sedentary behaviour in children aged 3–12 years.” The more outdoor time children have, the more physical activity they take part in and, conversely, the less sedentary behavior they display.
Like myself, many adults spend time recreating in the outdoors because it brings them a sense of happiness and well-being. We could look at this from a historical perspective; humans are animals, and the natural environment would certainly seem more conducive to our mental health than the business and overwhelming stimuli of a big city. And if adults, who have had their whole lives to grow accustomed to the ways of the modern world still need to get away to nature every now and then to stay happy, surely children must benefit from these quieter environs as well.
Unsurprisingly, a 2018 study showed that the more time children spent in nature and the greater sense of connection that they personally felt with nature, the less likely they were to experience psychosomatic symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, headache, stomach ache, backache, etc. The benefits started with as little as 30 minutes of outdoor activity per week, and peaked at around 14 hours per week.
Morality and Stewardship:
Physical activity, cognitive development, even emotional well-being—these things are relatively easy to quantify in research. But what about something like an individual’s moral drive to preserve natural areas, or their innate desire to be good stewards of the land? Can we quantify these outcomes?
As it turns out, we can! Though it’s more difficult to show a correlation between time spent in the outdoors during childhood and an individual’s likelihood to become a good environmental steward, it has been shown that the amount of time spent in the outdoors has a direct correlation with a child’s feelings of connection with nature. This sense of connection with the natural world then has a direct influence on behaviors related to environmental stewardship in children.
So, the more time we can get future generations to spend in the outdoors, the greater sense of connection they’ll feel with nature, and the more likely they will be to work at environmental stewardship and preservation.
Through personal experience and anecdotes, it can sometimes seem obvious that time spent in nature by children is a valuable thing in and of itself. But it is so impactful that research has similarly been able to show quantifiable, real-world effects from time spent outdoors on children’s physical and mental well-being, as well as their likelihood to internalize messages of environmental stewardship and the importance of preserving natural areas for the future.
At Friends of Youth and Nature, we believe strongly in both the individual impacts that activities in nature have on each young person, as well as the broader long-term goal of creating another generation who feel strongly about the importance of maintaining and safeguarding our public lands for the benefit of all.
Our goal is to continue supporting programs that have both a personal and philosophical impact on the future of our natural areas, in order that we and future generations may enjoy these spaces for many years to come.
 Gray, Casey, et al. “What Is the Relationship between Outdoor Time and Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Physical Fitness in Children? A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 12, no. 6, 8 June 2015, pp. 6455–6474., doi:10.3390/ijerph120606455.
 Piccininni, Caroline, et al. “Outdoor Play and Nature Connectedness as Potential Correlates of Internalized Mental Health Symptoms among Canadian Adolescents.” Preventive Medicine, vol. 112, July 2018, pp. 168–175., doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2018.04.020.
 Andrejewski, Robert, et al. “An Examination of Children's Outdoor Time, Nature Connection, and Environmental Stewardship.” ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst, Proceedings of the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium,2011, https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=nerr.