The Value of Outdoor Education and Healthy Child Development

Want Healthier Kids?  Let them Play Outdoors!

In an increasingly wired-in society, today’s children are at risk of becoming alienated from the natural world around them. Childhood obesity rates are soaring and the health and economic risks associated with a ‘playless’ world are becoming more and more evident.

Children learn best through play. The need for unstructured play and experiential experiences in nature are essential components of wholesome child development. In nature, children do not need to wait for adult direction as the natural world invites children to act on their own inquisitiveness in a uniquely engaging environment. This leads to ordinary scientific learning and invites new depths of curiosity, such as, “what’s that green stuff growing on that tree?”

Several studies indicate that anyone who participates in “green exercise” or “green gym” experiences an improved sense of aliveness, well-being and energy that effectively helps in making healthier lifestyle choices in the long-term.


“Spending time in natural environments helps with recall and memory, problem-solving and creativity. Children and adults who spend more time outside are also physically healthier.”

David Suzuki.

American Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, has popularized the Nature Deficit Disorder theory as a way of viewing the problem and describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished used of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illness and the potential loss of the necessary connection between human health and the health of the natural world.

While parents not only fear the risk of abduction of their children, they often cite other safety concerns about their children’s “virtual house arrest,” including their children’s multi-media obsession and myriad organized activities that their children may be involved in, as well as their own busy schedules, as reasons for skipping outdoor activity.

But many studies around the world point to the economic and physical benefits to children when they can just go out and play -  specifically:

  • Improved cognitive flexibility, maturation and creativity, including developing the abilities of analysis, synthesis and evaluation
  • A higher level of instinctive problem-solving abilities
  • Increased sense of self-esteem, cooperation skills, and self-discipline
  • Higher academic achievement
  • Reduced stress, obesity rates and associated health risks
  • Better sense of community and place
  • Improved physical performance
  • Higher concentration levels and reduced attention and behavioural disorders
  • Higher productivity

Most importantly, 90% of children in a 2007 study on outdoor activity, report that adventurous play makes them feel happy!

Teachers and Parents

Free play in natural areas enhances children’s academic success, particularly when natural environments are integrated into the school’s curriculum. Green plants have been shown to reduce stress. Effects of Attention-Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are reduced when these children have regular access to the outdoors; this is sometimes known as Green Therapy or Eco-therapy.

Teachers involved in all-weather schools (daily outdoor activity, year-round) report more motivation as educators, plus increased student enthusiasm and engagement in learning. Children demonstrate better motor coordination and concentration, and teachers report fewer student absences due to illness. Schools that used outdoor classrooms and experiential, nature-based learning demonstrated significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, math and environmental literacy.

There are lots of ways that parents, educators and other professionals can re-right the balance of children and nature in their daily lives.

Let the children play. If safety is a concern, join family nature clubs or go on nature play dates. Take the time; all of these benefits are good for adults too!

Parents and professionals need to know about the healthy, emotional and cognitive benefits of nature for children.

Introduce a Green Hour to a child’s day; give them a regular “dose” of unstructured outdoor play for an hour a day.

Parents and mentors need to be intentional about taking children into nature. If the prevailing concern persists about safety, it will require adult presence and participation. If you can’t do it yourself, motivate your child’s school to take the students on an adventure at an environmental facility such as the Ganaraska Forest Outdoor Education Centre:

How can I justify leaving my classroom?

  • An opportunity to offer hands-on learning experiences directly related to your school’s curriculum
  • A chance for children to understand the interdependence of human beings and the environment
  • A belief in the inherent value of all life forms.
  • Give children an opportunity to experience the fascination of being immersed in a whole other world for a day or a two-, three-, or five-day residential stay
  • Let certified outdoor instructors take the pressure off by leading the exercises in fun, meaningful ways; you get to play, too!

Environmental benefits:

Imagine a world without vast, wide-open spaces and pristine habitats. If children continue to be separated from their natural world, “Who will be around in 50 years that will be seriously concerned about environmental conservation?” author Louv asks.

Environmentalists and conservationists report in a 2006 study, that their own early experiences as children in the outdoors directly contributed to their choosing, as adults, to take action to benefit the environment. Their formative experiences were most influenced by frequent, childhood experiences of natural, rural or other relatively pristine habitats. They felt comfortable visiting these places alone and were more positive towards them as adults. The most direct links between these adults’ concerns for the environment were participating in wild nature activities and playing independently in the woods before age 11; AND having a mentoring adult who taught them respect for nature.

Their mentors introduced them to ideas such as:

  • the land is a limited resource essential for family identity and well-being
  • disapproval of destructive practices
  • simple pleasure at being out in nature
  • the fascination with the details of other living things and elements of the earth and sky.

The outdoors offers a unique opportunity for fun, family-bonding by inviting and facilitating parent-child connectivity and sensitive interactions between the participants and nature itself.
Modelling these attributes while in the presence of the child brings life-forming results, enhancing the child’s self-esteem to cultivate a commitment to caring for nature as an adult.


“Give Children the Gift of Nature,” author Richard Louv.

With special thanks to the Children and Nature Network’s:

A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural World, 2009