No matter what your interests are, it’s only natural to want to “spread the stoke” for the activities you love. In a community of outdoor enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies, it’s easy to state a case for the benefits of being outdoors. It’s where you hit those natural highs, break personal records, learn to trust your friends, and ultimately where you are the best version of yourself. For people so exposed to and involved in nature, it’s easy for us to say that there are these intense and immeasurable benefits of the outdoors. In the most genuine way, we want to share what it is we love. The advocacy for outdoor activity is simply a byproduct of a lifestyle. Everyone should spend more time outdoors; kids should spend more time outdoors. But why exactly?
The outdoor environment is the ultimate stage for unstructured play and, in turn, physical activity. Unstructured play is defined by verywell.com as “a category of play where children engage in open-ended play that has no specific learning objective...unstructured play is not instructor-led,” My version of unstructured play: early morning weekend hikes with no set agenda.
The rise in sedentary activities, or activities where little or no physical movement is involved, such as video games and interactive electronics, has given way to less unstructured play. Children are spending more time indoors involved in such activities and are constantly offered “instructor-led” play, often in the form of an electronic device. This trend of less-time-outdoors, has aligned seamlessly with the rise in childhood obesity, sensory issues, and lack of balance.
Pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, Angela Hanscom, notes a dramatic increases in children being referred to occupational therapists for sensory issues. “As we continue to decrease children’s time and space to move and play outdoors," Hanscom writes, "we are seeing a simultaneous rise in the number of children that are presenting with sensory deficits.” I learned a lot from her article, THE UNSAFE CHILD: Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good. Unlike sedentary or “indoor” activities, playing outside allows for a full range of sensory stimulation. Neurologically, a variety of sensory input is necessary in developing dynamic skills that allow us to succeed as functioning adults later in life. Think of all the senses that are engaged during a climbing expedition or the context clues we use to determine if a particular route is safe. We often depend on developed sensory skills.
Hanscom also notes that underdeveloped vestibular systems are more common in children with less exposure to the outdoors. The Vestibular system is responsible for the ability to balance. We all know that learning activities later in life, like skiing for instance, can be difficult. Getting the feel for the type of balance is tough for just about anyone. Now imagine you’re an individual who didn’t fully develop their personal system for balance in the natural growth period of their youth. Are we creating future generations of terrible skiers!? (I for one, want to share what it’s like to ride pow with my future kids.)
According to Ben Klasky in his 2014 TedTalk entitled “get hooked on nature,” the number of kids getting outdoors everyday has dropped in half compared to their parents' generation. He compares 1970s children to those of the 2000s. In direct correlation, the rate of childhood obesity has tripled in the same measure of time--perhaps the most obvious of issues. With the swift rise of those sedentary activities, thanks to lifestyle changes, unstructured play, and in turn physical activity, just isn’t happening naturally.
Get the kids moving--get them outside.
Myopia is the medical term for nearsightedness, where the individual has focus on objects near to them but the distance is incredibly blurred or out of focus. From my limited understanding and general inability to stomach anything medical, myopia results from the eyeball growing too long and in turn, creating a focal point in front of the eyes’ retina rather than on the retina itself. Basically, there is a healthy limit to the growth of the eyeball. Bear with me...
Myopia can be blamed in part on genetics. Recent studies, though, suggest that the risk of developing myopia is decreased with exposure to natural light. Natural light assists in limiting the growth of the eyeball to it’s ideal size.
A study presented at the American Academy of Ophthalmology Meeting in 2011 indicated "a 2% reduced odds of myopia per additional hour of time spent outdoors per week.” So each hour spent outside resulted in 2% lower odds of losing the ability to see distant objects in focus.
In Taiwan, where myopia in children is being referred to as an epidemic, a similar study was conducted. The conclusion of the study was similar to the 2011 study. To quote the results directly, “more time spent outside during the day and limited near-work activity, may be a feasible strategy for curbing the increasingly high prevalence of myopia.”
Yet another study from Australian researchers concluded, “higher levels of total time spent outdoors...were associated with less myopia…” The trend, undeniable.
What I found so interesting is that it’s not necessary digital screens that are causing myopia but the lack of exposure to adequate outdoor light. Denying outdoor play could be denying the development of proper eyesight…crazy!
“A little dirt never hurt.” I’m lucky to have heard this growing up, usually when choosing to eat food that had dropped on the ground or being barefoot all summer long. My parents supported the idea that a healthy immune system meant not being overly afraid of dirt or germs. I never realized the concept was so scientific.
A microbiome is a community of microorganisms (or microbes) such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that inhabit a particular environment. Skin microbiome is basically the sum of all the living microorganisms on your skin. Microorganisms on the skin come from the microbiomes of environments and surfaces we interact with.
Our increasingly sterile environments filled with hand sanitizer and germ-phobias has limited the variety of skin microbiome in adults and children. So kids are cleaner...the problem? A diverse skin microbiome benefits the human immune system, and without that diversity, you have increased risk for illness, disease, and other medical issues such as asthma.
David Suzuki of the David Suzuki Foundation drew from a variety of research material to conclude that getting dirty is healthy, particularly in terms of diversifying skin microbiome.
He explains that diversity of skin microbiome comes from areas with rich plant variety, where humans interact with the microbes found on those plants. Indoor environments often do not include the same health-benefiting microbes.
He explains very specifically:
A microbe common to mud and wet soils, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been shown to influence brain neurotransmitters to reduce anxiety and improve cognitive functioning. Another microbe encountered in natural environments, Acinetobacter lwoffii, has been shown to benefit the human immune system, preventing asthma, hay fever and other ailments in children who have been exposed to it.
Going further, Suzuki found a University of Helsinki study that blamed the increasing prevalence of allergies on the decrease in the biodiversity of our environments. When two groups were compared, those in less biodiverse environments (those exposed to less nature) were at higher risk for a range of allergies. The difference was on their skin.
Those exposed to more plants had a more diverse skin microbiome and fewer allergies. So, interacting with dirt and plants makes people healthier. Thank you, science.
Children who play outside grow up to be the adults that protect nature. It’s true, studies show that individuals who advocate for protecting the natural environment are typically individuals who were introduced to outdoor activities at a young age.
Think of your own experiences and motivations for protecting the environment. Protect Our Winters is a notable non-profit of the outdoor industry dedicated to combating human-induced climate change. The POW community consists of professional athletes whose vested interest in winter makes preventing climate change personal. Their winter pastimes and their professions, likely introduced at a young age, are the driving force behind the cause.
Author Randy White explains, “regular contact with and play in the natural world” is what develops a love of nature and a desire to protect the environment or, in his words, a positive environmental ethic. I love mountains and snow and want them to last forever. That love was sparked by an early introduction to skiing at age 3 (which may no longer be early by new standards).
A study was conducted at the University of British Columbia that exposed a direct correlation between adults who wish to protect the environment and their experiences with childhood outdoors. Catherine Broom conducted the experiment and found that when outdoor experiences are positive in young children, their love for and comfort in nature will carry on.
For brands like Sawyer and others in the outdoors space, it’s easy to advocate for kids getting outside. We all simply love and wish to share the outdoors. It’s difficult sometimes to convey that same love and passion you feel for an activity that someone else doesn’t understand.
There’s a recurring conversation that starts each winter on the chair lift at Snowbird, usually on a powder day. I can hear my friend Bob saying it: “We’re so lucky, we’re so lucky to have this--this feeling and this-- this amazing thing that we get to do, people don’t understand…holy sh...” Then the conversation usually trails off as he spots someone getting first tracks on the Cirque and mixed with a few more profanities than I’d put in writing.
He’s right though, people don’t understand…not everyone has that passion for a particular outdoor activity or sport. We might not need anymore reason for kids to get outside, but other people may.
This post was published in collaboration with our friends at Sawyer who work to outfit the children of the wild. Most simply, they exist to encourage children to be outdoors. Check out their story and products by visiting their site or following them on Instagram!