Outdoor Play, Learning Important for Youth

— Written By Sarah Kocher and last updated by
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Fresh air, green trees, and the sounds of nature are commonplace in some people’s days. For others, school, an office job, or working on the computer keep them indoors for many hours.

For youth, experience with or access to outdoor space can influence how much time they spend outside. Notably, youth benefit physically, emotionally, and mentally from outdoor play and learning, and there are numerous activity options and ways to stay safe when spending time outside.

Studies show outdoor play can contribute to better health, reducing obesity and media addiction. Too, it has been shown to counteract the effects of attention deficit disorder and other learning challenges.

When outside, youth of all ages can build social skills. The setting lends itself well to quality time with family and friends and offers opportunities to connect with nature. Outdoor play also typically involves physical activity, which helps youth stay healthy as they grow and develop.

Parents, guardians, and other caring adults may have safety concerns coupled with kids being outdoors, but there are many ways to address these concerns.

For environmental hazards, teaching youth to check the weather, monitor air quality, hydrate, wear proper clothes and shoes, and use sunscreen and bug spray can all be helpful strategies. Playtime is also a prime opportunity for youth to learn about outdoor safety topics like the buddy system, basic first aid, hiking, and camping safety, reading maps, and more. Supervision is advised, and, again, outdoor play can be both a time for bonding and a learning experience.

boy jumping on trampoline

(Photo by Eli Wingler of Caldwell County): Photography is a hobby and 4-H project that can be done outdoors. Eli Wingler, 8th grade student in Caldwell County, participated in a 4-H photography workshop, “Focus on Photography,” this spring and is pictured jumping on a trampoline outside in his photograph.

Outdoor play does not have to be an all-day or overnight excursion to be beneficial. Families are encouraged to start from where they are. Intentionally spending an extra couple of hours outside each week is a great place to start.

North Carolina State Extension’s 2009 publication “At Your Door Step: A Family Factsheet on Outdoor Play and Learning,” lists over 70 ideas for ways to play outdoors.

Examples include planting a garden, riding bicycles, making a picnic, watching bugs with a magnifying glass, and going fishing. Access more of these ideas and information at https://go.ncsu.edu/outdoor-play.

Locally, we have access to greenways and parks. Plus, within a relatively short driving distance there are wonderful natural resources, like the Pisgah National Forest and parks and trails off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

North Carolina 4-H and county 4-H programs have not returned to in-person meetings at this time, but 4-H provides support and has access to resources for youth wanting to learn about these areas: bees, birds, bugs, bicycle and bicycle safety, camping, community service, environmental stewardship, fish, forestry, gardening, geology, healthy living, hiking, horse, livestock, soil conservation, water quality, weather, and wildlife. Caldwell County 4-H also plans to connect youth with camping opportunities at state 4-H camping centers for the summer 2021 season. Contact Sarah Moyer at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center for more information about projects and camp at sarah_moyer@ncsu.edu.

North Carolina has three 4-H camping centers, where youth learn about a variety of outdoor topics. Youth do not have to be a 4-H club member to attend camp.

North Carolina has three 4-H camping centers, where youth learn about a variety of outdoor topics. Youth do not have to be a 4-H club member to attend camp.

Next month, read about career opportunities that involve spending time outdoors.

Caldwell County 4-H is a member agency of United Way, and it enthusiastically supports its partnerships.