Outdoor Play and Gardening

Sad to admit, but outdoor activity among young children is declining. The reasons are many—proliferation of electronics, two worker households, public school budgetary problems, and heightened concern for child safety and security are among the chief factors. If we break down the kinds of outdoor activity that should be engaging our youth, gardening would be high on my list. I will enumerate the advantages of gardening on this page, but first I want to spell out the advantages of outdoor play in general.

Benefits of Outdoor Play for Brain Health

One of the great benefits of outdoor play, especially unstructured play, is that children have an opportunity to explore, role-play, be creative, move their bodies, interact, and stave off obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a policy statement in 2013, entitled, “The Crucial Role of Recess in School.” The Academy highlighted the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive advantages of regular outdoor play for children.

We often think of recess as time-out activity for preschoolers and younger elementary students, but time to play outdoors is vitally important straight through the middle school years. I would place a similar emphasis on its importance all through the teenage years, but the school day is structured differently in high school, making it difficult for physical outlets to be scheduled into a school’s daily life unless students commit themselves to athletics. The drop-off in the percentage of schools offering recess time to middle school students is huge—in a recent study 90% of schools offer recess to fifth graders, while only 35% offer outdoor time to sixth graders.

Main brain benefits of outdoor play for ALL children:

  • Stress Relief
  • Blood Circulation
  • Creativity
  • Social Interaction
  • Concentration and Focus
  • Problem-Solving
  • Emotional Regulation
  • Improved Memory
  • Brain Food: Increased BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)
  • Language Development

Main brain benefits of outdoor play for middle school students:

  • Develops Positive Attitude toward School
  • Promotes Self Confidence
  • Can Ward Off Depression
  • Can Level Playing Field with Bullies
  • Can Curtail Obesity
  • Sustains Creativity
  • Enhances Intrinsic Motivation
  • Brain Food: Brain is Activated during Physical Activity—Expediting Delivery of Oxygen, Water, and Glucose to the Brain
  • Opportunity to Become Environmentally Knowledgeable
  • Builds Sense of Community


Why Gardening Should Be Mandatory for All Children

The earth and all of its natural effulgence—flowers, trees, herbs, plants, grass and all the little critters that feed the soil beneath the ground, plus the sunlight and the rain—deserve our understanding, care, and support. We will die as a species if we stop teaching our children about life outdoors or at least life that can grow along the windowsill of our classrooms. Care for the earth equates to care for each other. Teach the joy of growth; teach why water and sunlight contribute to life; teach that food, beauty, and all support of life comes from the earth and what it yields.

In this age in which the predominant sensation of the fingertip is a dull, non-stimulating sliding across a glass surface of an iPad or cell phone, our fine motor skills are plummeting in schools; handwriting is in crisis; finger movement and pincer muscles are not at all being developed. Likewise, interest in crafts, object manipulation, creative construction (with blocks, Legos, straws, and problem solving are all suffering due to technology being foisted and left with our youngest children. Teachers and parents can completely turn around these trends by teaching gardening and exposing children to the full growth cycle of plants from seed to planting to cultivating to harvesting. Getting fingers dirty outdoors is not at all an unhealthy activity. Connecting children with the earth, getting them to interact with dirt and plants, guiding them toward caring about growth—even putting together a harvest day and a Farmers Market event whereby four-year-olds sell herbs to parents—these are the processes of a nourishing education for children.

Main Brain Benefits of Gardening for Children:

  • Teaching the Sources of Life
  • Teaching the Basics of Photosynthesis
  • Purpose Beyond Self: Connecting the Body with the Earth
  • Developing Empathy for Life and What Sustains Us
  • Dirty Hands Expand Awareness of Environment
  • Plant Knowledge Teaches Respect
  • Eliminates Fear of Bugs and Critters
  • Provides Foundation for Science Learning
  • Develops Appreciation for Water
  • Teaches the Power of Climate