The Benefits of Being Outside

Spontaneous time spent outdoors can have benefits beyond your wildest dreams

By Melissa Bernstein

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing outdoors. When I was young, no one in my neighborhood had nannies. Sending the kids outside to play was Mom’s free babysitter and the only way she could “get things done.” As long as it wasn’t actually storming, she would shoo us out the door the second our breakfast plates were cleared, and other than a quick, ten-minute sandwich gobble midday, wouldn’t expect us back inside until dinner was literally on the table. This enabled her to accomplish her daily objectives and keep the family functioning: cleaning house, washing clothes, and making nutritious meals.

These days, children don’t have free time to play outside. Sometimes, driving home on a weekend, I make my way through a neighborhood, and am shocked to find no children at all playing in their yards. On a beautiful, sunny day, I find that very disheartening! Most everything in a child’s life today is scheduled with a distinct purpose. The only sunlight and fresh air kids generally get is walking from the car into buildings for their steady stream of activities. Although organized sports participation is at an all-time high, they are more structured and professionally coached than ever, and there is no open-ended play aspect inherent.

The Good Ol’ Days Outdoors

[photo melissa max-width=150 align=right]This is a tremendous shame, because the endless days my neighborhood crew spent running around outside were so much fun, but the furthest thing from organized! Everything we did was freeform – invented right on the spot, depending on how many peers were joining us that moment. A game of tag, hide and seek or kickball morphed hourly into infinite variations, based on the number of players in attendance and new ideas we injected to spice up those classics.

Our other activities were completely dynamic and open-ended, as well. We built forts, climbed trees, went on hikes, swam in streams, raced bicycles, slept in tents, star gazed and told ghost stories. We collected bugs and rocks in old jars, caught fish with homemade poles, made wildflower bouquets, whistled through blades of grass, and searched to find that elusive four-leaf clover. We dug holes and buried treasure and pretended we were explorers from days gone by.

Our play group was also a microcosm of the world, a melting pot of all shapes and sizes and personalities – not restricted to a selection of similar types, but 100% heterogeneous! As long as you lived in the neighborhood, or were a neighborhood friend you were welcome – and participants included both boys and girls ranging in ages from 4 to 15. We played, competed, argued and conflict resolved like siblings, and developed lasting bonds which still exist to this day.

The Unheralded Effects of Unlimited Sunshine

My childhood gang never imagined being indoors or watching television during the day. We craved the outdoors like a flower craves sunlight. And now looking back, it is easy to see the tremendous developmental benefits from doing so.

This vast amount of time outdoors was good for our bodies, and even better for our minds. By building our muscles, endurance, and gross motor skills, we were developing confidence to handle a lifetime of physical challenges. Moreover, in exploring the glory of nature we were developing our infinite curiosity and sense of wonder.

And possibly most importantly, by inventing games and activities and continually problem-solving, we were establishing guidelines that kept our group functioning effectively and happily through those wonderful days. Plus, we were broadening our creativity, imagination and leadership skills.

So, once you hear those birds chirping and the buds popping their heads tentatively from the ground, shoo those grandkids right out the door! It will be the biggest favor and best opportunity you give them, offering a lifetime of rewards. columnist Melissa Bernstein is the co-founder and co-CEO (with husband Doug) of Melissa & Doug LLC, a leading designer and manufacturer of educational toys. Started nearly 23 years ago "in a garage" with their combined meager savings, Melissa & Doug has grown to become one of the most trusted names in preschool toys. Melissa lives in Westport, Conn., with her husband, Doug, and their own personal "test market," their six children ages 3 to 17.


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