Children who are regularly outside in nature have improved gross (large) motor skills, and an increase in physical activity (Bell and Dyment, 2006). They can be found running, climbing, jumping, and balancing, using and engaging the muscles of their entire body. When faced with a steep path strewn with rocks and logs, children accustomed to flat surfaces, such as parks and sidewalks, will have a difficult time traversing, but a child of the woods will confidently fly over the obstacles lying in her way. They develop a confidence in their bodies and a physical awareness from constantly testing themselves on uneven and unstable surfaces. The natural environment is very inviting to children to explore and test their limits. They can't help but move. A child may be too afraid to try the balance beam at the gym, but a log lying on the ground will often draw him in. A ladder may seem imposing, but tree roots crisscrossing a hillside create the perfect way to get to the top of a steep hill. Dragging and assembling logs into a fort uses arm, leg, and back muscles in a way not easily used when playing on a playground. All this physical growth is happening while children are engaging in unstructured play, unaware they are learning and developing, no one needing to force or teach these physical skills.
Children show more creativity in their play when in nature (Bell and Dyment, 2006). They are not restricted in their play by the environment and are free to use their imaginations to their fullest extent. Many toys have predetermined uses and children will engage with a toy in a limited number of ways. Children playing in the woods may be using a stick as a boat, but their play can easily evolve, as children often do, and the stick may become a spoon to stir a pot of soup, a writing tool for drawing in the mud, for digging, or added to the wall of a fairy house. Because there are no man-made toys in nature children must use their imaginations to turn what the find into a toy and are more likely to engage with others on a higher creative level. Playing with others becomes more creative rather than assuming roles based on the toys and props around them.
Communication and Social Skills
When playing in nature children demonstrate better communication skills and cooperation (Bell and Dyment, 2006). When playing inside, children have a limited number of desired toys and space, which often leads to conflict within a group. Nature has endless amounts of space and unlimited quantities of sticks, rocks, pinecones, and leaves for children to play with. Since children are engaging their imaginations at a higher level when outside, they will interact more with others, providing the chance to practice their developing social skills in a positive way. Social skills are not practiced as frequently when children are inside with their interactions focused on toys. Often children will start large projects while playing in nature, which leads to the necessary level of cooperation and communication to get the job done. A large rock or log needing to be moved, or a shelter or bridge needing to be built is easier done when a group figures out how to work together and communicate effectively.
When children are allowed to spend a large period of time outdoors they have a corresponding decrease in their exposure to germs that are present inside. They are also less likely to become ill because of an increase in sleep due to fresh air and exercise. Obesity, an unfortunate side effect of a society which spends a majority, if not all, of the time inside (in addition to other contributing factors) is reduced in children who spend plenty of time outdoors. Studies have also shown a decrease in ADD symptoms in children who spend more time in nature (Kuo and Taylor, 2004). Stress, a contributing factor to decreased health and well being, is reduced when given access to nature. According to Wells and Evans (2003), locations with a greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural areas show more significant results in reducing stress. Urban environments expose us to an overwhelming amount of stimulation which fatigues the brain, causing impaired cognition and self control (Marc Bermain el al). A healthy mental state leads to a healthier physical state.
Perseverance, planning, engineering, problem-solving, testing, and observing are all learned while playing outside in nature. Children learn the best way to construct a fort through trial and error, testing different methods and materials, solving problems that arise, and sticking with it until the project is completed. They observe the changes around them, ask questions, hypothesize, test, and observe some more to see if their theories hold up. They learn to question the world around them by watching the life cycle of frogs, deer, birds and other animals up close. Discovering a carcass will lead to many questions and discussions regarding life. Observing a rotting log will teach about microbes, composting, and the discovery of a whole new world thriving beneath. Being outside allows our brains to work effectively and efficiently without all the distractions of modern life.
Children have a natural, but varying, desire to seek out risk and experience the accompanying sense of exhilaration produced when pushing the boundaries. In our ever controlling environment it has become more difficult for children to experience a sense of risk in a positive and appropriate manner. Despite the increase in safety regulations for playgrounds, there has not been a corresponding decrease in childhood injuries (Chalmers, 1999, 2003). Research suggests that childhood injuries are not a result of the play equipment, but the result of how children use the equipment (Ball, 2002), using it in unforeseen and unsafe ways. The restrictions imposed by the design of the play equipment and restrictions placed by persons of authority are limiting children in the development of risk assessment. They never learn how to push their bodies and minds in a gradual and age appropriate manner. This can lead to other and arguably more risky behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, and social risks later in life. Allowing a 2 year old to cross a log, a 3 year old to hop across the rocks in order to cross a stream, an 8 year old to climb a tree or build a fire, and even later a teenager to go hiking or camping alone allows a child to experience risk in a healthy and productive way, learning about the world and how to gauge what is safe or not. Exposing children to nature and educating them on its beauty and dangers also teaches them to pay attention to their surroundings, their abilities, and to assess risk and weigh the possible outcomes of different choices.