The benefits of getting kids active and outdoors

by Brandy Centolanza

In an age where most kids would rather play video games or text on their cell phones, how can parents help instill a love of nature and the great outdoors in their children?

Being outdoors has plenty of health benefits for children, and moms and dads should plan outdoor family activities as often and as early as possible for their little ones.

“Playing outside is a benefit both mentally and physically for kids because fresh air and sunshine does the entire body good,” says Laura Poeppelmeier, recreation director for Wilderness Presidential Resort. “The physical benefits of playing outside are kids being free to move without restraint. They are able to work on muscle strength, coordination and fine motor skills through play outside. Whether it’s on a playground, playing games in their backyard with friends, or taking a walk to go on a scavenger hunt, their movements outside help them burn off extra energy and calories with the physical exertion of play.”

Spending time outdoors with the neighborhood kids or with friends through organized activities such as scouting, outdoor adventure camps or similar programs has other positive impacts as well.

Structured programs like scouting “provide group rules, skills development, and focus on a collective goal,” says April Peterson, owner of River Rock Outfitter. “Children learn to lead and follow, work in a team environment, and build confidence both in their successes and failures. Unstructured play is equally as important and offers children the opportunity to use their imaginations and be creative in their outdoor discovery. This type of activity allows children to build confidence in their own skills and find their own passions.”

“The negative outlets are all around them. It’s important that parents guide them from an early age to choose positive outlets to relieve stress, find friends and to build confidence.” – April Peterson

Poeppelmeier agrees. “Kids develop their social skills through play by learning to work together, how to take turns, and picking each other up when they fall,” she says. “These outdoor play opportunities help them create friendships and develop their leadership skills.”

There are simple ways parents can help their kids develop an appreciation for being outside. Begin by exploring local parks, hiking trails or even walking or biking around your own neighborhood.

In addition, “Camping in any form whether it’s ‘roughing it’ in a tent or doing a little ‘glamping’ in an RV, cottage, or cabin, is a great way to get your family outside because these locations are almost always surrounded by nature in some way,” says Poeppelmeier. “When camping, getting older kids and teens involved is as easy as helping them learn new skills such as how to set up the tent or campsite, how to properly build a fire and cooking over that fire, how to fish, how identify plants and how to read a map and use a compass.”

At Wilderness Presidential Resort, families can hike, bike, swim, play tennis, volleyball or Disc Golf, or enjoy the outdoor Adventure Park, which features rope, swing and climbing obstacles.

Meanwhile, River Rock Outfitter has opportunities for families with children ages 9 and older including various levels of paddling courses, rock climbing and rappelling, and hiking. Outdoors activities such as these can be a great stress reliever for children, according to Peterson.

River Rock Outfitters paddling instructor Ben Morton

“Children will find an outlet to manage their stress,” she says. “The negative outlets are all around them. It’s important that parents guide them from an early age to choose positive outlets to relieve stress, find friends and to build confidence. We would argue that outdoor activities are the best, positive outlet to provide children. It costs nothing to hike a trail, and there are plenty of other outdoor activities that can be done at no or low cost. When a child is stressed, angry, or confused, we want them to find solace in the outdoors. This will serve them well when they are teens and they reach for their kayak to hit the river and paddle versus reaching for an unhealthy alternative.”

No matter what you choose to do, the key is to just get out there.

mom daughter hikingRiver Rock Outfitters family hike in Shenandoah National Park

“Encouraging a love of the outdoors starts with leading by example,” says Poeppelmeier. “By taking the time to enjoy being outside yourself, your children will see that joy, and hopefully it will spread to them. Whether it is having family time gardening, walking some local trails, or participating in outdoor activities that local organizations put on, sharing these outside experiences with your children won’t just benefit them, it will benefit the entire family.”