Improved creativity, focusing on the present moment through mindfulness, increased confidence, enhanced mental health—these are just a few of the incredible benefits getting outdoors can offer to both kids and adults. But what if simply going out in nature at a young age actually had an impact on how our brains develop? You may want to think twice about cancelling your plans to go on that hike with your child because it turns out that outdoor experiences do have a profound effect on brain development in several ways.
Being Outdoors Helps Connections Form in Our Brains
In her article, The Importance of Taking Infants and Toddlers Outdoors, Brenda Cobb explains that during their first several years of life, children learn by taking in every sight, sound and experience possible. With this information, infants and toddlers make sense of the world.1 By adding the outdoors early on as part of a child’s regular sensory environment, they are naturally given more stimulation which enriches and enhances brain development.1 Cobb also states that, through age three, connections in the brain form at an incredibly rapid rate and suggests aiming to spend, at minimum, one hour per day outdoors.1
The Outdoors is Key to Developing Our Senses
A research study published in Environment and Behavior found that nearly all adults listed the outdoors as the most significant place during childhood.2 The researchers explained that developing our senses—hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste—is a foundational experience in childhood making it strongly tied to memory. The article mentions, “Children experience the natural environment in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but, rather, as a factor and stimulator.”2 This explains why childhood outdoor experiences serve as such strong memories into adulthood. Through this study, researchers also found that adults remembered natural environments experienced during childhood because they were so different from indoor, manufactured environments.2
More Time Outdoors Improves Memory and Attention
Using cognitive testing and controlling for a multitude of other factors, psychologists compared the amount of time children spent outdoors at preschool and their cognitive and behavioral development. Their results suggested that more time spent outdoors during preschool helped children improve their memory and attention skills.3 Published in 2017 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers studied 562 Norwegian preschoolers for four consecutive years. They found that children who spent more hours outdoors scored higher on cognitive tests, had improved memory and showed less inattention-hyperactivity symptoms compared to students who spent fewer hours outdoors.3
Vitamin D and Brain Development
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient found in our diets and—more substantially—from sun exposure.4 Vitamin D has many important functions in our bodies including regulating calcium levels in our blood, helping form and maintain strong bones, and reducing inflammation. Recently, extensive research and evidence has also shown the important role that vitamin D plays in healthy brain development. Doctors at Children's Hospital & Research Center in Oakland discuss how vitamin D affects proteins in the brain that are directly involved in memory and learning, motor control, and potentially even social behavior.4 They also state that the need for vitamin D supplementation in groups where deficiency is common including nursing infants and the elderly.
There is some pretty convincing evidence that simply moving beyond the four walls of our buildings plays an important role in childhood brain development and our health and wellbeing as adults. At Avid4 Adventure, we believe in introducing kids to the power of the outdoors so they can take full advantage of these benefits for the rest of their lives. Through summer programs that focus on outdoor sports like mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and hiking, kids make priceless memories and gain valuable skills that they carry with them long after camp is over.
To see a map of the recreation areas we visit so you and your family can take advantage of getting outdoors in the Bay Area of California, Colorado and Oregon, click the link below.
1. Cobb, B. (n.d) The Importance of Taking Infants and Toddlers Outdoors. Retrieved from https://www.ucy.ac.cy/nursery/documents/importance-of-taking-infants-toddlers-outdoors.pdf
2. Sebba, R. (1991). The Landscapes of Childhood: The Reflection of Childhood's Environment in Adult Memories and in Children's Attitudes. Environment and Behavior. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916591234001
3. Ulseta, V., Vitarob, F., Brendgenc, M., Bekkhusa, M., & Borgea, A. (2017, October). Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children's cognitive and behavioral development. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494417300737
4. (2008, April 23). Vitamin D Important In Brain Development And Function. Science Daily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080421072159.htm