I can remember going outside to play immediately after breakfast as a child and not coming back indoors until right before bedtime. Yes, we often ate lunch and dinner outdoors during the warm months. We didn’t have air conditioning in the tiny farmhouse my grandparents lived in, and I was partially raised in. The inside was not nearly as cool as outside under the shade of our apple tree or giant flowering bushes. Nor could a fan replace the feeling of the breeze pulling my hair back from my face as I sped down a hill on my bike, standing, butt hiked in the air, racing my siblings and cousins.
Granted I was raised in the country, down a holler, where all my neighbors were related to me. I was able to spend all day home with my grandparents who didn’t work while my single mom worked a full-time job. And we had a solid half acre of play space not counting the hillside was sported a mile long (est.) dirt road up to the family cemetery which we frequently hiked.
We played video games and watched TV, and I loved to read, so we spent our fair share of time indoors even in the 90s-00s. But we got dirty every single day. I still have scars on my knees from all the spills I took on my bike or falling while running foot races. I always had dirt under my nails. We climbed trees. We rolled in the grass. We jumped through sprinklers. We engaged with nature, and I believe we are all better adults for it.
A Love of Nature
First and foremost, I think having a childhood where playtime and outside were so intertwined has lent me a healthy respect for nature I carry to this day. Having splashed in and swum in our little creek that ran behind our house, I know the importance of having clean natural water sources. My grandmother, aunt, and uncle were ardent flower lovers, and we had multiple flower beds to weed as part of our chores. Our grandfather farmed and we were able to supplement our food sources with the vegetables we grew. As a result of that we learned to appreciate the process of planting and watching things grow, and caring for them and reaping the benefits of that attention and work. We determined the role of bugs in growing plants as well and learned to not fear them for their more creepy crawly properties.
Secondly, we got so much exercise. Childhood obesity is a real problem. The CDC reports that 1 in 5 school age children and teens is obese. That number has more than tripled since the 1970’s. Obesity is not only the result of a lack of exercise. Nutrition and genetics can play significant factors in a child’s propensity to obesity as well. But the fact remains that leading an active lifestyle can reduce and prevent obesity in most individuals. There are barriers for children leading an active lifestyle. Unlike my siblings and me, many children lack a safe space to play outdoors. Children living in urban or highly populated areas may require more supervision. All the stories of abducted children and the pictures of them are enough to make most parents lock their kids in a closet just to keep them safe from strangers. Public parks and state parks with hiking trails can be beneficial to people who lack the outdoor space. Another solution is for schools to reintroduce recess, specifically outdoor unstructured play as a required part of the school day. According to an article by Ginsburg, Committee on Communications, and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, a survey conducted in 1989 found that 96% of kindergarten classes had a recess period. Ten years later that number dropped to 70%.
I was lucky as a child that in addition to having a home life that supported such outdoor playtime, my elementary school also had a decent outside playground adjacent to a wooded area and away from private homes or commercial businesses that might attract strangers. The woods behind the school had also been set up as a sort of conservation education center where trees and plants were labeled with their Latin names and a path clearly marked.
Third, there are many documented developmental advantages to outdoor play including improved motor and sensory development, confidence building, and cognitive development and may even have behavioral benefits for children with ADD.
Improved Immune System
Finally, for my list, playing in the dirt may enhance the immune system not to mention the added benefits of getting things like Vitamin D from sunshine. Factors like improved hygiene and more time spent indoors seem to have caused allergy rates to rise dramatically and allowing children to be exposed to natural elements like soil, plants, and pollen can help diminish the risk of developing allergies. There is a distinction in playing the dirt and playing in dirt that may be tainted with industrial waste, human waste, or other harmful bacteria harboring sites. This Forbes article suggests visiting National Parks which are protected from industrial and commercial dumping, clear-cutting, and/or mining.
Kids can be cleaned, their clothes can be washed, or replaced depending on the severity of staining. But childhoods cannot be changed or replaced. And the health benefits are there and shouldn’t be ignored.