The Benefits of Exploration on Children and Their Development During the Winter

Thinking back to our childhoods, I’m sure many of us can remember biking around our neighborhoods, running through the sprinklers on a hot day, or exploring a neighborhood park with our friends. While we might have fond memories of time spent outdoors as children, today’s kids, by and large, aren’t having the same experience. Children today spend an average of just 4 to 7 minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play, compared to an average of 7.5 hours engaged with electronic media.

Innovations in technology have resulted in tremendous changes to our society – and many of these changes took place within our own lifetimes. I can remember my family getting our first home computer as a child and purchasing my first smart phone as a college-aged adult – things that children today have never lived in a world without.

While technology has, without a doubt, brought positive change to so many aspects of our lives, it’s important to remember that the benefits of connecting with the natural world can’t be understated. More than 100 scientific studies have shown that experiencing nature – whether it’s getting outside to explore, bringing nature into the classroom, or simply being near nature – has a positive impact on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes and social interactions.

When kids spend time outdoors, the vitamin D they soak up from the sun’s rays (with sunscreen on, of course!) aids in bone development, promotes a healthy immune system, and can improve sleep patterns and mood. Additionally, being outside encourages active play, and studies show that children need about 1 hour of physical activity per day for healthy growth and development. 

Unstructured outdoor play and exploration may be scary concepts for some parents, but there are so many brain benefits for our children. There are an infinite number of ways to interact with nature and being able to “choose their own adventure”, as it were, builds confidence. Plus, when kids have these unstructured opportunities, it helps them build skills like planning, prioritizing, troubleshooting, negotiating, multitasking, and problem solving.

 

If that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: students that have experiences in outdoor classrooms show an average 27% improvement in their test scores compared to their peers. Being outside doesn’t make kids better at math or spelling, but the skills they build while playing outdoors impact the way they learn inside the classroom.

 

As we continue our journey through another cold Kansas winter, it can be tough to keep our kids occupied in a way that doesn’t involve screen time. Sending your kids outside to play isn’t always possible when temperatures can dip below freezing for days at a time. So how do we help our children connect with the natural world when it’s cold out?

Here in Kansas, cold doesn’t mean barren. We’re lucky enough to have little snowfall, and because the weather in Kansas can sometimes include all four seasons in one day, keep an eye out for those warmer winter days. Or, if you’re not afraid of a little chill, bundle up and head to some great outdoor spaces like Great Plains Nature Center, Pawnee Prairie Park, and Sedgwick County Park.

Challenge your kids to an outdoor scavenger hunt – see if they can find a squirrel, a cool rock, a cardinal, or even an animal track. You can do this on a nature trail, around your neighborhood, or even in your own backyard. End your “hunt” with a mug of hot cocoa and ask your kids what they liked the most about their nature walk. 

Encourage your kids to spend a little time outdoors on days when it’s warm enough. Head into your backyard and help your kids find some natural materials – like sticks, leaves, pine needles, branches, or logs. Give them the chance to unleash their creativity and see what they can build!

Did you know that earth and mud play is a great way for kids to become familiar with the planet we live on? Send them outside with shovels or other digging toys, or even help them find a stick, and point them to a spot where it’s appropriate to dig (so, maybe not the middle of your lawn?). If it’s too cold outside, you can bring the earth to them for a supervised indoor digging session. 

Bringing the outdoors inside is always an option. Gather up some natural materials like different kinds of leaves, pinecones, acorns, sticks, and whatever else you can find and set up a winter sensory table for your kiddos indoors. Being able to hold and manipulate natural objects – even if it’s a little too chilly to be outside – gets kids using those skills that we want to foster.

Finally, one of my favorite ways to engage with nature in the winter is birdwatching. If you’re stuck inside because of bad weather, get yourself a bird feeder! Hang it somewhere that you can observe from the warmth of your house, fill it up, and see what happens! If you don’t have a bird guide handy, download an app like eBird, Merlin, or the Audubon Bird Guide to see if you and your kids can identify who’s visiting your backyard feeder!

I know in the winter, it’s easy to feel cooped up and stuck, but there are so many ways that you can encourage your kiddos to explore the natural world even when it’s cold outside. And don’t forget to get YOURSELF outside too! While we may not have to worry about our test scores, adults can reap health, emotional, psychological, and social benefits from nature play as well!

Tanganyika may be closed for the winter, but we still have day camps, story time programs, birthday parties, meet and greets, and other ways for you to connect with our amazing animals until you can come visit us again this spring. 

So get out there and get outside! Or bring the nature in to you! Whatever you do, keep yourself connected to nature this winter, and we’ll see you soon!

About the Author: Erinn Bock has been the Education Curator at TWP since 2009. Born and raised in San Jose, California, she studied Wildlife Biology and English Literature at Kansas State University. Ever since watching the first episode of The Crocodile Hunter as a kid, she’s known that she wanted to use her passion for the natural world to help connect people to the incredible animals on our planet. When Erinn’s not teaching camp or helping teachers plan field trips, she loves spending time reading, crafting, and taking care of her “mini zoo” at home. 

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