Did you know kids today get half the outside time their parents did? Think back to your childhood. Are your fondest memories of playing video games, or are they of climbing trees, building forts, and splashing in puddles? Healthy kids get outside more than their peers. Between the screens and parents’ aversion to letting their kids get dirty – outdoor time is way down. The average kid aged 8-10 spends 6 hours a day in front of a screen for entertainment! (1) 6 hours… that’s like binge-watching all 3 Cars movies and having time to start Planes! All this screen time is doing nothing to improve their health. In fact, it’s detrimental to their health.
Making sure your kids get outside to play is just as important to their health as making sure they are eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. This could mean (and should mean) they will be getting muddy. Kids in their natural environment, exploring the outdoors, will naturally get dirty. Here’s why you should embrace it and put down the wet wipes.
1- Stronger Immune Systems
Indoor environments are often over-sterilized. The growing immune system needs to be exposed to stressors to get strong. Stresses like the harmless stresses you can often find in mud pies. Think of the immune system as a muscle. To strengthen that muscle, we need to stress the muscle with exercise. When we work out, sometimes our muscles get sore and ache, but the body adapts and rebuilds more muscle so that when we encounter that same amount of stress, the body is stronger. It will be better able to handle the exercise, and we will become fit.
That is why it is so important for our bodies to be exposed to these different types of pathogens and sometimes to get sick. Once our body encounters a pathogen, our immune system creates a memory of it for life, so when we come into contact with that specific pathogen down the road, it can easily get rid of the infection, and we don’t get sick. Mud pies mean stronger immunity!
Decreasing screen time and increasing outdoor play will lead to earlier bedtimes and improved sleep. Being outside and exposed to natural light is supportive of the circadian rhythm. If your kids are getting muddy- they are getting better sleep. (2)
3- Connection to Nature
People who spend more time outdoors are happier. Remember, children who spend more time outdoors will grow up to be adults who spend more time outdoors. One study looked at adult participants who took a 50-minute urban walk compared to participants who took a 50-minute walk in nature. The ones who took a nature walk reported less anxiety, negativity, and unproductive rumination. (3)
As we become more disconnected from nature, there is growing evidence that humans need nature for health and well-being. (4) As we become more disconnected from that space, so does our health and desire to protect those spaces. We know it’s crucial to reconnect people with the outdoors. (5)
4- More Vitamin D
Many Americans are Vitamin D deficient because they are spending more time inside. Your body makes Vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun. Your body turns this into a hormone that supports health and happiness by regulating 1,000 genes throughout the body. (6) Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression. (7) Ever notice a mood boost after being outside? It will support the immune system too! Vitamin D is also needed for strong bones.
Vitamin D has plenty of benefits for adults and kids. It’s hard to get all the Vitamin D you need from foods, and the best way to get it is from good old-fashioned sunshine. It won’t come from the light of your tablet.
5- Prevents Obesity
Staying inside leads to sedentary behavior like sitting in front of televisions and tablets. Getting outside usually means increasing physical activity like riding bikes, chasing salamanders, and digging a hole to China. Children are wired to use their bodies and get active. They will find a way!
Vitamin D, better sleep, and physical activity lead to lower BMIs. Most children spend less than an hour playing outside on the weekends. Less than 1 hour! Studies show the more time children spend outside, the less chance they are overweight. (8)
6- Learning and Problem Solving
Making mud pies isn’t easy, and neither is making forts. These pursuits require creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, which are used regularly in the great outdoors. (9)
Gross motor skills are when children use their larger muscles for crawling, running, jumping, and more. The outdoors leaves lots of space for using these skills in big ways, which is linked to better academic performance, learning, and memory. Interesting, less structured, and fun play for preschool children is linked to better academic performance going into elementary school. (10)
7- Mud Pies and Social Connections
When children are outside, they are more likely to be playing with friends. When making mud pies, they are working together and using their problem-solving skills. By figuring out problems together, they build strong connections and learn to be good friends –even when your friend throws a mud pie at you!
When making mud pies, you need to decide the best tools to use and the best way to collect mud. The more people working on mud pies, the more mud pies there are! It helps if you are working together!
8- Decreases The Need for glasses
Playing outside helps prevent nearsightedness in children. (11) Poor eye health and nearsightedness are on the rise. Children with two nearsighted parents are at higher risk of nearsightedness, but if they spend more time outside, they have the same risk as children without parents with nearsightedness. How much money can you save on glasses if your kids play outside?
Healthy Kids Get Outside!
Children today will spend half the time outside their parents did and will be unhealthier because of it. You can’t replace good outdoor time with structured play to get all the benefits. So, let them play! You might find a corner of your yard dug up for mud pies and they will track mud into the house. Just smile! They are learning and getting healthier! Healthier children means healthier adults!
Written By Dr. Mitch Sutton
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