From the moment their baby is born, many new parents are continually concerned about their child hitting developmental milestones. Important moments marking emotional, cognitive and physical development, which babies are expected to achieve as early as two months, include "finding" fingers, following moving objects and recognizing loved ones from a distance.
Many toys promise to help kids grow smarter and learn faster or calm them when they are overstimulated. There are games and toys and gadgets designed to hone children's academic and physical skills and engage their curiosity.
Child experts, however, say one of the best things parents can do is take their children outside. Studies conducted within the past 10 years have found that simple contact with nature is imperative to kids' emotional and physical development.
Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and author of several books about nature and child development, says children need consistent exposure to nature to grow into balanced and healthy adults — whether they live in cities or rural areas and regardless of their economic status or culture. "Research suggests that exposure to the natural world — including nearby nature in cities — helps improve human health, well-being and intellectual capacity in ways that science is only recently beginning to understand," Louv wrote in a blog post on the C&NN website (www.childrenandnature.org). "People need nature for healthy development."
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concludes childhood play is "essential for helping children reach important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient."
"Children need to explore the natural world," says Dr. Lawrence Benjamin Lewis, associate professor of psychology at Loyola University of New Orleans. "It's how they learn about how things work and are active in it."
There's not a lot of technology in the classroom at Edelweiss Montessori Preschool and Childcare, where instructor Glenda Gentinetta-Locicero works with kids as young as 18 months. She says she often plays music for the children but avoids using computers or videos. That allows the babies and young kids to spend more time outside.
"They are actively engaged in learning through the senses, and nature provides a perfect medium for that in and of itself," she says.
When babies or young children are outside, feeling the grass in their hands, picking flowers, throwing leaves or playing chase, they're doing much more than just playing; they're working, learning how to develop. While babies use play to improve motor skills — responding to color, touch and sound — older children take the lesson a step further and develop problem-solving skills, focus, self-discipline and creativity.
Gentinetta-Locicero says they also become better at using their imaginations and socializing with others, even at early ages.
Not only are children who play outside often found to have more advanced motor skills, but they also are able to foster language and collaborative skills at earlier ages, Lewis says.
For example, he says, "There are no balls in nature. If you're going to play a ball-like game, you have to improvise. You have to modify things. You have to communicate."
Children have plenty of indoor distractions, many involving sitting at a computer or watching television. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say a sedentary lifestyle could be dangerous. According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, and in 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents in America were overweight or obese.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website (www.hhs.gov) says playing outside could lead to healthier children and reduce the prevalence of chronic childhood obesity in the U.S.
Nature also can help children who have been under stress or have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorders balance their emotions, Lewis says.
"The more they practice focus and self-regulation, the less they are going to experience symptoms of ADHD," he says. "And nature gives you more opportunity to learn to regulate self and engage in self-directed behavior."