Is just being outside good enough?

Back in May Lindsey and I happened to find ourselves killing time before a movie in some suburban area of Las Vegas. We weren’t sure where to go to since neither of us live there, but when we saw a bit of green with a playground and a baseball diamond, we figured we could sit on that grass quite happily for as long as we needed. We ended up strolling past a skate park. An acre of concrete molded into ramps, half-pipes, and pools, with hand rails sprouting here and there from the hard cement.

Fifteen kids, aged ten to twenty maneuvered though the obstacles. Some were clearly experienced: they gave the sense of a deep understanding of the dynamics created by that shaped concrete, combining graceful forays down curves with abrupt stops on ledges, where they’d balance on wheel posts, as frozen as the cement, for a split second. Others were just beginning. Three boys on bikes almost too big for them navigated a half pipe, braving the steepest most dreadful moment when they had to first drop in. One timid boy did the entire half-pipe straddling the bar of his bike, foregoing pedals for the security of keeping his heels on the pavement. We smiled while watching these same three boys figure out how to get out of the half-pipe too. “You have to go fast!” one braver boy encouraged the timid one.

There was no green grass, no dirt, no sticks or leaves, no living thing but the boys on their bikes. Here, in this environment as barren as any indoor space, these kids were learning courage, creativity, and confidence. They practiced social skills, encouraged each other, looked out for each other, challenged each other. They learned to focus on the task at hand, and to get up and try again when they fell down; to push themselves (“you have to go fast!“) in order to accomplish. They learned balance, body-eye coordination, and how to assess outcomes quickly, as conditions changed.  And they burned off lunch and that after-school snack to boot.

We were stymied.  Thrown off our game.  These kids were outside, but they weren’t in nature.  And yet what we saw seemed perfectly good and healthy.  And we got to thinking, was just plain being outside, away from electric plug-ins, good enough?

Are being outside and being in nature the same thing?  And what counts as nature anyway?  I mean, over 80% of Americans live in cities and suburbs (so says Wikipedia, anyway).  There, ‘nature’ is either pretty tamed, or only accessible by a four hour drive.  Are the poor children in cities and suburbs doomed to a substandard upbringing simply because their parents have chosen to live where the jobs are?

Knowing that many of our readers have likely thought about this before we turned the question to you, asking for your thoughts on the subject.  Here’s what you said:

  • 82% of you said nature was an essential component in the upbringing of a healthy child.
  • 18% of you said just being outside was enough—it didn’t have to be in a ‘natural setting’.
  • NONE of you thought it was okay to bring a child up ‘indoors’ (we knew there was a reason we liked you!)

And some of you gave us a little bit of insight into why you chose one or the other.

We go out into the natural world as often as possible, because we think it is important in many ways. However, we cannot always make it out into the wilds, and will often play in our yard, on the driveway, at the zoo, the playground, wherever we can get to be outside. The benefit to places like the zoo, playgrounds, parks, etc. is that they are more accessible to to some of our friends who may not be as adventurous as us with there kiddos, and generally there are many more social opportunities at those urban outdoors locations. Ideally we would go hiking and/or camping all the time with friends who have children as well, but for us (two full-time jobs) it’s hard to plan for that. –Family Wilds
I think if kids are outside, they will gravitate to nature. I think so many parents get bogged down with teaching the kids something everytime they’re outside that the kids just end up staying in the house. Just turn them loose – they’ll probably experience cooler things on their own than we could show them sometimes—Bring the Kids
Our home is like that – wide open whenever possible. Why? So we can always feel a breeze, unexpected guests are regular visitors, it is never quiet for bird songs. Why do I mention this in answer of this question? I guess it comes to mind because I think it is most important to just feel a part of more than four walls however you manage to accomplish it. If, even in our most native environment, our own homes, we don’t lock nature out, then a multitude of outdoor environments feel more open to our exploration. You’ve got to let the wind mess our hair up first before you’ll want to chase it up a mountain and back down again.—Becky
…parents get stuck in the rut of thinking it’s enough to just let the kids play in the fenced backyard, the park, or their friend’s house. I would encourage families to get out into “true nature” as much as they can…—Jen

You all agree on the importance of being outside, and all value nature wherever you can get it.  It seems like you’ve read about how nature increases test performance, leads to nicer classroom behavior, tempers the stress children may feel from other thing happening in their lives, and develops their observation skills.  But, it seems, you also understand that nature, for many of us and our children, comes in shades of grey.  Somewhere in between the skate park and the Frank Church Wilderness are the zoos, the city parks, the local aquarium, and the weedy lot down the street.  And that will just have to do most days of the year.

No, we conclude.  No child is doomed.   The simple fact is:  kids need lots of things as they develop.  They need to practice being courageous.  They need new experiences.  They need to learn to focus.  They need to meet and learn to get along with other kids.  They need to be active.  Engaged.  Challenged.  Entertained.  In the absence of a mountain to explore, a creek to dam, a tree to climb, or some other natural ‘toy’, all of these things can be learned on the pavement.  Amongst sky scrapers and box stores and strip malls, or in the meadow behind the house if they’re so blessed.  Outside.   Where there’s a little room to run, and jump, and yell, and get a little crazy.


There’s a greater need, too.  The need for our children to understand their place.  Their connection to the planet on which they play.  Their innate link to other living things.  Kids need to be humbled by the enormity of the earth.  They need to be sympathetic and mindful.  They need to be comfortable with the chaos that is just another day on the planet.

They need to be able to pee in the woods.

They need to understand that we depend on the earth, and that the earth depends on us; and that their best chance at a healthy upbringing (city or country) begins with a healthy environment.  Without a connection to ‘nature’, these needs won’t be met.

Don’t have time to take a hike with your kids every day?  Or even every weekend?  That’s okay (it’s sad, but it’s okay)—send ‘em to the skate park.  But if you have a spare moment to point out the sunset, or a flock of birds, or the changing of the colors on the trees in the park… if you can grow a plant together… if you can get away for just one or two camping trips each summer… a hike in the fall… we’ll all be better off.

11 Comments so far

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  1. Love your thoughts on this! Thanks for taking time to do this poll and share with us!

    • Bring-the-kids, It is our pleasure. We were as curious as you as to what the results would be! Your comments yesterday were spot-on, and we really appreciate your taking the time to share!

  2. This was a great idea, and thanks for sharing your ideas and philosophies as well.

    • Family wilds: Thanks so much for your participation and your insightful comments! It is much appreciated ’round these parts…

  3. Bonnie

    Well said! I remember you and your sister with your little red wagon ferrying home discarded pallets from the furniture store a couple of blocks and a couple of corners away. You brought them home one at a time, carefully balancing and steadying and worrying (of course). You built a house in the garden with them. You weren’t “In nature”, but you learned cooperation and creativity. I agree. If you live in the city, exploit it for whatever outdoor time it may offer.

    • Ah yes, I remember the red wagon and the pallets… and the worrying. I remember the amazing house we built from them in the back corner of the garden too. The way it smelled slightly stale. How proud I was when it was actually leak proof (thanks to the plastic sheets we also found in the dump). How ingenious we felt when we fixed the lack of hardware situation by putting in a ‘skylight’. Makes me want to go build something all over again.

  4. Yes. Yes yes yes. To all of what you just said. Every little bit counts. I’m (finally) reading Last Child in the Woods and that is a big part of what I’m getting from the book – that kids really really really need to be exposed to nature, but it doesn’t have to be epic hiking trips or living in a yurt for a year. Rather, the simple everyday (or as often as possible) exposure is what’s going to sink in with a child and make them truly feel a connection to nature.

  5. What a thoughtful, beautifully written post. I absolutely agree with most of what you said…except that I don’t think it’s sad at all that we don’t go hiking every day, or even every weekend. If we did that, we woudn’t have time to tend our garden. Or try to pet the bees in our local park. Or paint, or build things with lego, or make rainwater soup with the last of summer’s flowers. Along with knowing his place in the world, natural and manmade, my child also needs to know the value of time, without pressure to be doing something or going somewhere productive every day. And for us, living in the city isn’t just about where the jobs are, it’s also a way to preserve the wilderness we love so much. Imagine if we carved it all up into half-acre lots so we could all have a meadow in the backyard?

    Glad to have found your blog.

    • Frances, you have a point: tending the garden, petting the bees, creating things at home (and I love the way you put it: the value of time, without pressure to be doing something or going somewhere productive every day…) are as valuable as time spent on a hike or camping. And yes, it is true that there are many reasons to live in the city–including, as you point out, leaving room for the animals and fish to live undisturbed. I hope everyone who lives in the city has an attitude as healthy as yours, as you seem to have balanced enjoying the natural world with living in the city perfectly! Glad you enjoy the blog, and thank you for your well-thought-out comment!

  6. […] Olivia, “Is just being outside good enough?” (October 11, 2011) GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", […]

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

    I don't blog alone! Meet outsidemom contributer Olivia