Let the Children Play… OUTSIDE! By “greenlife matters”, the Nursery and Garden Industry, New Zealand


NATURE Deficit Disorder (NDD) is affecting our children. Although this phenomenon is not an actual medical diagnosis, research shows that a lack of playing outside in parks and green spaces is contributing to various physical and mental health issues. Richard Louv explains that NDD is when children are too removed from nature, which leads to a number of behavioural issues, including diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.

Children growing up nowadays are surrounded by many technological distractions that prevent them from spending time outdoors. Televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and gaming consoles lure children to the screen to watch television shows, movies and video clips or play games. Regrettably some parents and caregivers use these devices as pseudo child-minders.

The temptation here is to bombard people with research facts and figures about inactive lifestyles, unacceptably high obesity rates, mental health issues and behavioural problems. But rather than dwell on the problems, let’s look at some research that shows how regular interaction with plants and green space can help.

Playing outdoors in parks and green spaces has been proven to reduce Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children. The outdoor environment, trees and plants provide welcome distractions, with the brain focussing on the colours, light, scents and textures, helping repress ADHD symptoms.

Similarly, in relation to curbing childhood obesity, children and youth living in greener neighbourhoods reported lower body mass index (BMI) scores, presumably due to increased physical activity or time spent outdoors.

Furthermore, children encouraged to spend more time engaging with nature and given opportunities to learn in an outdoor setting (green education) are more likely to continue enjoying the outdoors as teenagers and adults, positively influencing their health and wellbeing. It is pleasing to note that when primary school children are given a choice about where to play, more and more are choosing natural areas. Thus the green areas in school grounds stand to make an important contribution in providing equitable, inclusive, healthy and inviting play opportunities for children.

Green space clearly provides children with opportunities to lead happier and healthier lives; however, enticing children outdoors to receive a daily dose of green can often be the hurdle. Participating in outdoor sport or recreation activities, building a vegetable garden or simply visiting parks and gardens are simple ways to achieve this.

Related Links:


Dirt is Grounding!

dirt is grounding

Sarah Wilson of ‘Lattes Laced with Grace’ (www.latteslacedwithgrace.com) shares the dirt on dirt when it comes to the importance of allowing our children to get grubby.

As I write this, the kids are in the garden with the neighbourhood kids, making mud pies, and loving it. As there is research for everything these days, it may come as no surprise that there is also research to support the importance of children getting dirty and messy outside. It’s the idea that just maybe we are a little too clean these days.

In the popular book The Last Child in the Woods (Louv, 2005), the author coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder.” to explain that people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors today, and that this may be associated in a wide range of behavioral problems. Nature Deficit Disorder is not a medical condition, rather it is a way to describe our lack of relationship to our environment. Some people call it ‘dirtphobia’ or ‘messphobia’. Call it what you like, but the dirt on getting dirty is that it is actually good for kids…and grown ups too!

One theory is the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’ – this is the theory that our society today is a germaphobic culture, in which some children are being raised in overly hygienic conditions. Without adequate exposure to different bacteria and microbes, it is thought that the immune system doesn’t learn to recognize it’s own cells. Some researchers believe that this could help explain the higher rates of asthma and other allergies today (although allergic conditions often have a genetic basis too). Researchers also believe that microbial exposures early in life may be important to reduce inflammation in adulthood.


Dirt Can Be Your Child’s Friend:

Many parents are afraid of their child getting dirty and ‘catching something’. I can relate to this and I don’t like it when my son looks like he has been growing potatoes underneath his fingernails! And some children are also averse to the idea of getting dirty; one of my daughters is a little bit like this. I know I can be a “messphobic”, but how much better it is when the mess is contained outside!

And did you know that the stress levels of children are reduced significantly when they are outside in nature and greenery? There is even research to support the importance of going barefoot outside. This goes for adults too. But it seems to be especially important for children.

‘Children need leisurely, unscripted, and exploratory hours to find the wonders in their own backyards and neighborhoods, from discovering the beauty of the stars in the night sky to watching lizards on a warm summer’s day.’ (Charles, 2005).

Here are some more reasons why dirt is good for the body, soul and spirit:

  • A friendly bacteria found in soil helps produce serotonin, a hormone that helps with sleep and mood. It is grounding. I notice this myself  – when I am outdoors in nature, at the beach, in the garden, I feel calmer. Studies have shown that simply having contact with dirt, whether it’s through wallowing in a mud puddle, gardening, or digging holes, can significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce their anxiety and stress. And with childhood depression and anxiety on the rise, an increasing number of researchers are acknowledging the correlation between being outdoors and better mental health.
  • Kids who spend their free time outdoors ‘playing’ rather than being inside looking at screens have lower rates of obesity, ADHD, Vitamin D deficiency and depression. Of course, I’m not wishing to condemn any parent for allowing screen time. All things in moderation,  and I also struggle with the issue of screen time. It is a battle that we face as today’s parents. How much screen time to allow our children, if any, and how often?
  • Playing in dirt can help develop healthy immune function in kids that’ll keep them healthy and strong long past childhood.
  • Regular outdoor time will help children sleep better at night.
  • Playing outside is good for the character development of our children: when they play outside they become more adventurous, more self-motivated, and they are better able to understand and assess risk. Children who learn to judge and approximate risk when they are young (such as climbing trees) are more likely to make safer choices when they are teenagers.
  • Dirt can even improve classroom performance, creativity and social skills.



  • Gardening: I’m not really much of a gardener in this season of my life. In fact, I often joke that if my children were plants they wouldn’t survive! But getting out into the garden is great for children.
  • Explore nature with your children; study insects, leaves, wildflowers, rocks, etc. Start a nature collection. Go walking. Wade in creeks. Collect stones and paint them outside. Go on picnics, have pets, visit farms. If you are brave, go camping! Make a bug hotel, or a mud pie kitchen. Best of all, most of these activities are free.
  • Some experts even recommend parents allowing their children to taste things — Although our inclination may be to shy away from letting our children eat that flower or grain of mud, it isn’t the end of the world, and may actually be good for their immune system. Allow your children to experiment in playing with and even tasting the natural world around them.
  • Let your children go barefoot on soil, grass or sand: I personally don’t like going barefoot. I feel more comfortable in shoes given that I am rather vertically challenged. However, the science surprisingly shows that going barefoot (or ‘earthing’) can come with health benefits. Going barefoot can help moderate heart rate variability, it can reduce stress and inflammation, and help to improve glucose regulation and sleep. PaintSplashGD8

Let your children make magical messy memories outside. What would you like your child to remember from ‘the forever years?’ Clean clothes? Or days outside in nature, filled with fun, laughter and a sense of adventure?


A Gallery of Getting Grubby



A Bug Hotel

Mud Pie Kitchen