Outdoor Play Linked to Mental Growth

As I have always believed, playing outdoors has a huge impact on the mind’s creative ability and recent research agrees. At a time when the public school system cuts recess time for more class time and many families spend their free time indoors with technology test scores in the United States have fallen far behind many other countries. We also have become a nation whose idea of life for our children is to run them from activity to activity in order to attain a spot in a certain university with no thought to play time being a priority. Conversely, the nation of Finland has instituted a plan of 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of class time and their global score rankings have risen since 2008.

Recent research testing called “digit span”, which is a standard measure of intelligence and attention span, has shown that a 20-minute walk in nature increases a person’s attention span. Could it be that the ADHD surge we have seen is a product of too little play and time outdoors? It is certainly plausible to think so as outdoor play benefits motor skills, vision, cognition, vitamin D levels and mental health. A school of thought backing the positive results of play says the effect on attention is likened to taking rests between weight lifting sessions to let muscles recover. It seems our brains need the same breaks to regain attention and cognitive skills and nature coupled with play can provide this. Another theory, biophilia, is based on the fact that our brains evolved in nature. Today’s world of technology from light bulbs to iPads therefore creates chemical shifts in our brain, which the outdoors helps to balance and calm. Child psychologists see too many children today that feel anxious because they are being rushed and the suggestion they give to alleviate this anxiety is play.

What is even more powerful is when children are outdoors and have self-directed play; the world is not rote and this leads to problem solving in an enthusiastic manner. With this excitement comes heightened learning opportunites because children are enjoying what they are doing. The simple action of gathering items to build a makeshift fort or even playing hide-and-seek forces a child to explore new areas and think through options. A child who has spent most of their time indoors can initially complain of boredom or feel insecure. It is ok for a parent to give the child ideas but boredom is good because it will force a child to think about what interests them and this problem-solving refines executive thinking. Parents who step in too much and often stop this cognitive proess.

As homeschoolers I believe we understand the value of creative thinking and are very actively seeking ways to help our children become problem solvers. So, the next time you look for new activities to boost mental activity think about outdoor play. My own children have done everything from building stone walls, making tree swings and creating obstacle courses when bike riding. Not only did they seem happier but these playtimes also gave them confidence to take on larger and more complicated projects as they grew.

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