Playing Outside Matters! Is Your Kid Getting Enough Vitamin N?

The evidence is solid: unstructured time playing outside is really important for children. How do you increase your child's daily dose of Vitamin N?

little kid playing in nature

If you can’t find Vitamin N on the label of your kid’s vitamin bottle, have no fear. The N in Vitamin N stands for “nature.” In other words, is your kid playing outside enough?

How much time are average American kids spending outside playing? Admittedly, that’s a tricky thing to track, but I saw numbers as low as four to seven minutes on average per day! 4 to 7 minutes! 

Before you scoff at those numbers, think about your own kid. How long do they actually spend outside in free play? What about on rainy days? In winter? On busy weekdays?

Then, take into consideration that, on average, kids between 5-8 years old spend about 3 hours of screen time per day.

Suddenly, those 4-7 minutes don’t seem so unbelievable, do they? For many kids, those numbers are pretty accurate. That was probably the case for my own son, until recently. 

So, why does this matter?

Numerous recent studies have shown that spending time outside, especially among forests and trees, has significant benefits to our health and well-being—both for kids and adults. It’s no surprise that being outside can help with stress reduction and support mood improvement, but did you know that it can actually increase kids’ ability to focus, even in kids with ADHD? People recovering from illnesses or surgery recover faster and energy and sleep levels increase. 

According to a compelling piece in the Washington Post, kids who spend time playing in nature see better school performance, higher levels of creativity, improved fitness, more friends, lower levels of hyperactivity and depression, stronger bones, improved eyesight, better sleep, and even live longer lives. 

Okay, so the evidence is there: spending time outside is super-important. But now what? How do you increase your family’s Vitamin N consumption?

Baby steps

First of all, getting outside more often can feel intimidating. Especially if your child has fallen out of the habit of playing outside. So, my first bit of advice is to take it slowly. Try 10 minutes. See how it goes. Perhaps gradually increase that number. Find what works for you and your family. A few extra minutes outside still can make a difference. And you will find that the more time you spend outside, the more comfortable you get. When you’re ready for it, commit to a daily “green hour.”

red alarm clock in grassGreen Hour

The Green Hour is an initiative of the The National Wildlife Federation. The idea is to designate an hour every day for playing outside and learning in nature. This goal stems from the growing body of evidence from groups like the CDC and the Academy of American Pediatrics who see an hour a day of free play for children as a prescription for lifelong health. 

Dress for successkid and parent wearing boots playing outside

You’ve heard the saying there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes. Dressing appropriately for outside is so important to enjoying the outdoors. If you’re cold or wet or too hot, its hard to have fun. You don’t need fancy stuff from the outdoor gear store either. Try layering clothes you already have, inexpensive rain boots with thick socks work well to keep feet dry even when it’s chilly. Waterproof mittens are a great investment, since kids tend to end up with wet cold hands and wet cold hands are a recipe for grumpiness. Buying gear secondhand can save a lot of money, too.

Oh, and don’t forget to apply bug spray and sunscreen. And definitely encourage your little ones to go the bathroom before getting suited up for outdoor play, especially in cold weather.

Find Your Nearby Nature

Live in the city? You don’t need to drive out of town to find some nature or space for playing outside. Maybe it’s your backyard, a nearby park or greenspace—chances are nature’s closer than you think. Even in very urban settings, there are plants and animals to notice and weather to observe. As a parent, let your child take the lead. Let them explore and observe. Let them play. 

child in the woods outsideOutside School

Ready to jump right in to a more nature-based lifestyle? Then consider a large scale change. For our family, it was a switch from a more traditional preschool (where most time was spent indoors) to a nature-based program where the majority of the day is spent playing outside, in all seasons and weather conditions. There are a growing number of programs in Madison and nationwide that focus on spending significant time outdoors. Summer camps are another classic examples of nature-based programming, where the majority of activities unfold outside. With being outside at school the new normal, being outside at home started to happen more frequently and naturally for our family. We all benefited from our child’s increased nature time.

Make it Easy

Whatever you do, don’t overthink it! Just get outside. Walk around. Sit down with your kid and observe the world around you. Play at the park. Don’t have a whole hour to do a Green Hour? Try 10 minutes and do a “Green Ten.” Not sure you have the right gear? Work with what you have (layers, lots of layers!). Even if you don’t have a yard, step outside and start noticing the nature from the sidewalk or parking lot. Our circumstances and resources vary, so find what works for you, even if it just means opening a window more often or spending a few minutes after school playing outside on the playground. 

Do you have other ideas for incorporating more nature time and outside play in your family’s life? Please share the ways your family gets Vitamin N in the comments below!

Amelia Cook Fontella is a writer, teacher, designer, and entrepreneur. She lives in a cozy little house on Madison’s east side with her husband Rob, kiddos Frankie and Luisa, and a puggle named Starla. Amelia has an MFA in creative writing and regularly teaches in the Madison area, including her own Get Inspired Workshop classes. Amelia and Rob own Green Table Media where they help small businesses and community organizations tell their stories. Amelia adores traveling the world, exploring things in her own backyard, going swimming, and just about anything to do with creativity, writing, and the arts. She’s good at finding other people’s lost things and makes a mean brandy slush.


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