Scientists tell us that humans have existed for over three million years. Since it was only until about 200 years ago that we began to spend significant time indoors, we humans have spent virtually the entire span of that time (over 99.9%) outdoors. Our DNA and collective history tells us that it is natural for us to be outside. In fact, all behavioral scientists and psychologists say that spending time outdoors is essential to the human being’s development and maintenance of physical and mental well-being4. In other words, for us humans to live the balanced and healthy lives we are designed to live, we NEED to spend significant time outdoors as part of our everyday existence and lifestyle.
I know from long experience in working with young children and young adults that this absolutely true. I have led many groups of children outdoors, literally from toddlers to twentysomethings and seen the undeniable truth in the fact that we were all born to be outdoors.
I have often taken middle and high schoolers on their first camping experience. Prior to the camping weekend, some of these kids said they hated being outside. They complained in advance, saying they detested sweating and being away from technology at their fingertips. We told them they would be allowed to use their phone three times a day (times known to their parents who could expect a call from them). They and their parents expressed grave doubts that they could last the weekend in tents, sleeping bags, hikes and a campfire.
As we traveled to the campsite their moods became lighthearted, positive and a little nervous. By the time we arrived, a humility crept in: the smell of the outdoors and the sound of the wind in the trees caused them to become quiet and thoughtful. There were intriguing forces larger than their own egos. Within an hour of separating from their parents, the middle schoolers settled in and began to adapt to their new surroundings. Those who were comfortable outdoors were able to showcase their confidence and skills, often outshining the “popular kids.” Just camping the one night with hikes and campfire meals created mutual respect and bonds that would never have happened indoors.
In fact, when we returned to the meeting place to reunite with their parents, they were ebullient and energetically talking about the “next time.” Many parents were astonished to see their child’s enthusiasm for spending two days outdoors.
It is easy to underestimate the restorative value of being outdoors. Children naturally love it and have to learn to dislike being outside, often because their parents provide more indoor activities than outdoor ones. Going outdoors requires planning and making it a priority. Children take comfort cues from their parents. Whether we adults prefer the outdoors or indoors is largely a product of our own childhood. In Germany, there are pre-schools who conduct ALL of their education outdoors, never coming indoors for anything. These schools are called Waldkindergarten (forest kindergarten). The children learn through exploration and discovery and adults do not lead. No matter the weather, they remain outdoors. The kids love it. The Germans who endorse Waldkindergarten have an expression: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” You’ll see the little kids and their teachers in snow, rain, and sun.
As a middle school principal, I persuaded the faculty to institute a practice where all teachers were expected to teach an entire day of classes outdoors once every nine weeks. Veteran educators will tell you that you can teach anything outdoors, adapting the outdoor environment to the lesson. The children looked forward to these outdoor lessons, asking their teachers, “When can we have class outside again?” Initially some of the teachers balked, but the kids were intrigued; the latter rarely balk at doing something that seems a little out of the ordinary. The teachers soon discovered that even the children who were challenged behaviorally inside their classrooms were well behaved outdoors. In our 14 years of this practice, we had roughly 470,400 learning opportunities (1,400 kids per year x 6 classes x 14 years x 4 times per year) and we never had a discipline issue. Think about that awesome, mathematical fact: a half million chances for middle schoolers to mess up and we never had a problem!
That’s why recess is an imperative for everyone. Some misguided adults remove recess from children, even discontinuing recess altogether by the time they enter middle school. Children are healthier mentally when they are outside regularly and they are more cooperative with others. All of us – adults included - need to be outdoors more than we are.
I advise doing things with your middle schooler outdoors so it becomes an integral and fundamental ingredient to your lives. Puttering in the garden, shooting hoops, taking a walk, painting a model, or building a campfire/barbecue, but do it outdoors. When you share working on a project that you can be proud of, everyone wins. And you will find conversations about meaningful things naturally occur while you are engaged in the outdoor activities.
If you have become an “indoor person”, it is likely that your proclivities and
behavior are converting your own child into an indoor person as well. This carries with it lifelong negative consequences and I urge you now to consider finding both the time and motivation to incorporate “outdoor time” into your daily and weekly schedules.
©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.