The Benefit of Early Exposure to the Outdoors

Julia Knight

February 18, 2022

I grew up in the Midwest, and while some may claim the flatlands don’t have much to offer — I often found one way or another to get into trouble. I climbed trees in my front lawn, jumping off one branch, and climbing higher. While learning how to ride a bike, I often showed up to kindergarten the next day with bandages covering my knees.

On family ski trips, I was the one tumbling head over skis down the mountain rather than staying atop my skis like other people. I wanted to know how fast I could go, but nine times out of 10, I lost control and fell victim to power of the mountain. My mother was not a fan of my experiments as we watched her fearless seven-year-old tumble on down below.

There’s no question I have always had an adventurous heart, a thirst for more, and a passion for the world around me. I was fortunate to be able to spend more days outside than inside during my childhood.

That passion grew as I grew. While all my friends were putting on their prom dresses, I was stepping into a harness. One of my most cherished memories was checking my gear for about the 10th time, giving my spotter down below the “all clear” signal, and slowly making my way down. I was in Costa Rica, about to rappel down a waterfall at sunset, thinking “there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

While most of my senior class friends wrapped up their final year in high school with ceremonial “lasts,” I was surfing seven-foot waves, sea kayaking in bioluminescence waters, hiking through a cloud forest, and whitewater rafting Costa Rica’s Savegre River.

I could probably write a book about the personal lessons I learned during all of my travels, but the one that changed everything was the realization that human-powered outdoor recreation is so much more than carrying a heavy pack up a mountain range. It’s about the mental clarity and sense of accomplishment you feel at the height of the exhaustion.

Had I not grown-up climbing trees, or testing my ability on skis, I would not be who I am today. As a result, I believe that it’s not just important, but rather vital, that children spend time outside. We hear it all the time, how “technology is changing everything.” But what I see are the recreational habits of today’s kids changing in a direction that may have everlasting consequences. Bad consequences.

And there’s lots of supporting evidence for this. For example:

In their 2015 article for the University of Florida IFAS Extension — “Why Is Exposure to Nature Important in Early Childhood?” — authors Kristen Poppell and Martha C. Monroe share:

  • Allowing the space for a child to dive deeper within their own genuine curiosity, cultivates a sense of independence, which can lead to an increase in confidence.
  • Physical well-being, expression of creativity, cognitive development, and above average social skills are just a few of the positive outcomes simple daily play outside can bring to a child’s life.

I take this to mean many things, including that Interacting with the natural world at a young age sparks a sense of responsibility and purpose within the world around us, and that’s a good thing — especially when faced with climate change resulting in long-term shifts in weather patterns and temperatures.

In their 2017 article for the Porto Biomedical Journal, co-authors Gabriela Bento and Gisela Dias write in The importance of outdoor play for young children’s healthy development:

The exploration of natural elements is also important to capture children’s attention to the richness and diversity of Nature. The sense of discovery and fascination influences meaningful learning and allows for the development of an emotional connection towards the environment. If we assume that attitudes of respect and care are more likely to emerge regarding something that is dear to us, than it is crucial to promote a sense of belonging and familiarity toward Nature from an early age to facilitate ecological and sustainable behaviors along life.”


“In the outdoor environment, opportunities to exceed personal limits often emerge in situations like climbing up a tree or using a tool. In risky play, the adult should interpret the signs of the child, giving the necessary support or space that he or she needs.”

This translates to emotional connection starting young at outdoor play, and then it stays — it sticks — and suddenly you have a passion. Bento and Dias also speak to the importance of risk. Specifically, observing personal limits, allowing yourself to find where your comfort zone ends, and taking leaps of faith to test your physical bounds, is essential to growth. The concept of controlled risk, giving space for one to experience what is mentioned above, is so important at a young age.

Moving on, in the ERIC Digest “Outdoor Experiences for Young Children,” Mary S. Rivkin writes:

“…unlike some childhood pleasures, that of being outdoors seems lasting — any casual survey of adults will find a high quotient of happy outdoor memories, some of which have been formative.”

Rivkin’s thoughts tie into lasting impacts. Sure, many things can give us positive benefits, but outdoor play offers almost a building block of goodness for endless possibilities of change to endure.

Finally, in “Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Healthy Development,” author Kathy Kinsner says outdoor play “gives children a chance to take appropriate risks.”

A point that all of these sources make, is that you don’t have to take children to the most beautiful mountain range or have them rock climbing at the age of 3. It’s more about the simple day-to-day exposure of the outdoors that make the most profound, long-lasting impact.

As an assistant to an NCOAE program director, I get to support the efforts of a team dedicated to many things, including the belief that self-determination allows our students to challenge themselves, enhance knowledge and understanding, develop new skills, change attitudes and behaviors, and build confidence. Lucky for me, that process started a long time ago!

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About the Author: Julia Knight is the Assistant to the Program Director in The National Center for Outdoor and Adventure Education’s outdoor education division. A former NCOAE intern who has certifications in Swiftwater Rescue and Recreational Rappel Operator, Julia is slated to receive her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies in 2023 from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. 

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