Learning Environments

The Current State of Outdoor Play and Exploration in the United States

Kids play on the grass while adults hold parachute cloth up over their headsResearch shows that young children are spending less time outdoors engaging in active play and exploring the natural world.1 Researchers have identified several reasons for this decline, including:

  • Adult fears about crime and safety
  • Increased use of television, computer games, DVDs, and smartphones and tablets with digital media
  • More time spent indoors in structured activities
  • Child care arrangements with limited free time
  • Loss of natural habitats

More and more educators, health and mental health professionals, and other child advocates agree that this trend has significant adverse effects on young children's health and development. For example, Richard Louv, a child advocacy expert, worries that children are disconnecting from the natural world, a condition he calls "nature-deficit disorder."2 According to his research, nature-deficit disorder contributes to a rise in obesity, depression, and attention disorders. As young children "spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically ...."3 Childhood obesity is a major health concern because it is connected to diabetes and other significant health problems.4 Health professionals, educators, and parents are looking for ways to reverse this alarming trend, including increasing healthy eating and physical activity.

EHS and MSHS programs play an important role in strengthening infants' and toddlers' connections to the outdoors. Program leaders do this by working collaboratively with staff and families to fully embrace and support outdoor play and exploration. A key part of that work is increasing awareness of how outdoor play and exploration benefit young children.

1Clements, "Status of Outdoor Play," 68; Ginsberg, "No Child Left Inside," 3–5; Hastie and Howard, "Prescription for Healthy Kids"; The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, "New Study"; Thigpen, "Outdoor Play: Combating Sedentary Lifestyles," 19–20.

2Louv, Last Child in the Woods.

3Ibid., Introduction.

4Milano, “Defense Against Childhood Obesity,” 6; Head Start Body Start, “Outdoor Play Benefits.”