Want a daily dose of good health for your kids?
Send them outside to play!
As child and youth psychiatrist, every day I treat young people with stress, low motivation, anxiety, and depression.
One prescription for all my patients (kids and parents) is to go play in the great outdoors.
For humans and animals, free-play is directly linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain responsible for abstract concepts, monitoring and organizing our own thoughts and feelings, delaying gratification, and discriminating relevant from irrelevant information.
Play makes us comfortable with uncertainty, allows us to take risks, and learn from trial and error.
These are the ingredients for the ability to adapt and today’s kids are being severely deprived of it.
(Carla note: We’ve seen that played out here with the Child.)
When we add nature to free-play, we now have a “super-activity” for the brain and body.
Humans are biophilic, meaning we have a love of nature and we are biologically driven to be there.
Why do you think almost all babies stop crying when we take them outside? For 99 percent of human history, humans have lived in the natural environment and our brains have adapted to find balance and health in that setting.
In the last 300 years, we have become increasingly disconnected from nature and play with profound negative consequences on the growing brain of children and adolescents.
Here is how going outside and playing can help our kids.
Energy levels: Playing outside encourages activities that promote muscle fitness and flexibility. Research shows physical activity in child care settings increased from 1 percent indoors to as much as 11 percent outdoors. When outdoor play was child led, the amount of time further increased to 17 percent. Cardiovascular exercise is a natural antidepressant as it releases endorphins into the blood stream and can help with the production melatonin.
Focus and attention: The Attention Restoration Theory suggests the brain relaxes in nature, entering a state of contemplation that is “restorative or refreshing.” A study in the Journal of American Medicine found that children who played outdoors gained creativity and problem-solving skills as well as cooperation skills and self-discipline. Children with ADHD seem to focus better after being outdoors.
Anxiety and Depression: There are plenty of antidepressants in nature including sunlight and “negative ions”—particles found near waterfalls, breaking waves, and river rapids. Regular daily doses of bright natural sunlight help children stay more alert during the day and make it easier to sleep at night.
Overall physical health: Research suggests rising rates of allergies and autoimmune disorders may be linked to less exposure to healthy bacteria in nature. Reduced exposure to nature is linked to higher risk for obesity, cancer, and heart disease and the farther you live from green space, the likelier you are to be in poorer health.
Here is how you can help your child play more outside.
Limit screen time. It’s tempting to blame technology for sucking children’s attention, parents must realize kids have no access to technology without adults. We have more control than we think! Some parents feel helpless with technology or don’t set rules/expectations. I call this permissive jellyfish parenting. With no boundaries/guidelines, children of jellyfish parents have too much screen time. Others have over the top rules about screens with no compromise. I call this authoritarian tiger parenting. Children of tiger parents will often resent parents or use technology behind parents’ back. I encourage parents to be balanced dolphin parent. Smart, collaborative, adaptable.
Be a healthy role model. If you show your kids that you find enjoyment in being active, getting outside and making it a daily routine they will be more likely to mirror these healthy actions. (Carla note: YES! Practice what you wanna preach!!!) Walk or cycle to work, take nightly walks or join a league, can show your kids the importance of maintaining good health.
Dr. Shimi Kang is the author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger.