As electronic devices increase in popularity, children spend more time on their devices and less time playing outside. Although these screens give us a convenient and easy way to entertain kids, outdoor activities have essential benefits. Why is going outside so important? Spending time outdoors has sensory, cognitive and gross motor benefits

1. Five Senses and More

Sensory information is essential because it affects how we perform cognitive and gross motor skills. Most of us know about the five senses: taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Other, lesser known senses include vestibular (the ability to balance and know the position of your head) and proprioception (the ability to know the position of your body).

Many people don’t know that processing sensory input takes practice and experience. We actually learn to process it. This happens unconsciously, for the most part, so we often don’t realize it’s happening. When kids remain inside, often watching television or on their devices, they get primarily two of these inputs: sight and sound. Not only that, but the noise and visual field come mostly from a screen: they only hear and see from one direction. This limits their sensory development.

When a child goes outside, she walks (or runs or skips) on uneven surfaces, stimulating her sense of touch and proprioception. She hears noises from all around (not just one direction). As she moves her head to meet these sounds, she receives vestibular feedback. She develops spatial awareness as she views the world from different vantages: lying down, on top of a playground set, etc. As she breathes in the air, she experiences a variety of smells. As she throws and catches balls, her visual acuity develops to picture the ball coming closer and closer, and she receives proprioceptive input as she feels the force of the ball hit her hands and body. Not only does a child receive these sensory inputs, but she receives them in connection to one another. The input a child gets when the ball hits her hands confirms and fine tunes what she saw visually.

2. Cognitive Development

Researchers have well documented the benefits of movement effects on cognition, focus and alertness. So much research has shown the benefits of spending time outdoors that researchers have developed the term ART (attentional restoration theory) to describe it. They explain that urban environments create hard stimulation, where people are forced to use attention to overcome excessive stimulation. This includes horns honking, billboards and construction, to name a few.

Nature, on the other hand, provides soft stimulation. We focus on something: a sunset, a deer or a waterfall, because we want to see it. It feels effortless. In addition, nature has been shown to reduce stress, improve memory and improve depression and anxiety. Letting a child take a break from studying for 15 to 30 minutes will help him focus on his work when he comes back to it. It may even decrease the time it takes him to complete homework.

3. Gross Motor Skills

The gross motor benefits are probably the most obvious benefits for spending time outdoors. A kid can run around inside, but it’s so much easier and fun outside. When playing inside, the even and hard floor surface does little to challenge balance. The ground outside offers uneven surfaces that provide proprioceptive input. This input also develops balance and coordination to help children avoid falls and move more effectively.

The surface of the Earth provides such good proprioceptive input because it is stable enough to support us, yet it is soft enough to force our bodies to make small, frequent movements to prevent falling. This input actually helps recruit the posture muscles of the body. Carolyn Richardson, the leading researcher on anti-gravity muscles, talks frequently about how good the Earth’s sensory input is for these muscles.

Also, the outdoor environment provides plenty of opportunity to climb, move and explore. Kids can throw balls with less concern about breaking something. The space to explore increases, allowing ample room to roam. And because of the variety of an outdoor landscape, children rarely run, climb or play on the same terrain twice. This means they learn how to adapt to different environments every time they go outside.

Ultimately, spending time outdoors offers a wealth of benefits. Researchers have just started to explore these effects. Undoubtedly, we will discover many more advantages to spending time outside. But for now, make sure you incorporate outdoor activities into your child’s life. I recommend at least half an hour a day, and more on the weekends. If possible, join in. Both you and your child will experience the rewards.

By Carrie Williamson. Williamson is a physical therapist, massage therapist and NAHA-certified aromatherapist in Austin. She enjoys reading, hiking and yoga.

Where to Go

Get out and explore this sampling of glorious spaces for running, climbing, swinging and sliding.

Central Austin: Pease District Park, 1100 Kingsbury St.

South Austin: Southpark Meadows The Grove, 9500 S. IH-35

Southwest Austin: Dick Nichols District Park, 8011 Beckett Rd.

East Austin: Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, 400 Grove Blvd.

Round Rock: Play for All Abilities, 151 N. AW Grimes Blvd.

Georgetown: Creative Playscape at San Gabriel Park, 1003 N. Austin Ave.

Cedar Park: Elizabeth Milburn Park, 1901 Sunchase Blvd.

Bee Cave: Central Park, 13742 Bee Cave Pkwy.

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