Last week, I went for a run on the trails in the Arboretum. There is one trail in particular that I love: it’s a narrow trail with an archway of branches overhead, a small bridge over a shallow stream, a series of moss-covered boardwalks that wobble underfoot, emerging into a section of the woods where the trees are sky high and the minimal undergrowth allows you to see the expanse of the surrounding forest.

Even as an adult, this trail conjures the wonder and imagination I experienced in outdoor spaces as a child. Surely there is a gnome living in that tree nook, a troll under the bridge, and fairies bathing in pools of rainwater collected in fallen leaves.

My senses are stimulated but not overwhelmed. I hear the sound of birds calling and wind through the leaves, I smell the dirt, and a white-tailed deer sprinting off in alarm catches my eye. I splash in a puddle and kick mud on my legs, and my balance, coordination, and motor planning are challenged by tree roots, rocks, branches, and boardwalks.

I pause at a lookout point and breathe deeply. I simultaneously feel an increased sense of calm and a heightened awareness of and attention to my surroundings and the present moment. I am able to think more clearly.

While this is just a personal anecdote, evidence continues to mount demonstrating the numerous health benefits of spending time in nature. It has the power to impact our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

For children, free play outdoors supports every aspect of development. In a cultural moment where children have less free time, are playing less, and are spending fewer hours outside, we are simultaneously seeing increasing rates of health concerns in this precious population (AAP, 2009; Gray, 2014; Louv, 2005). Luckily, one of the most potent antidotes is a free resource at our fingertips, requiring no special equipment or advance planning. It can be spontaneous. It gives permission to do less instead of pressure to add one more thing to the list.

Play is one of the primary occupations of childhood. It fosters resilience, emotion regulation, strength and coordination, sensory processing, social skills, creativity, and executive functioning skills (Ginsberg, 2007; Hanscom, 2016; Thian, 2006). The outdoors is the perfect environment for free play opportunities because it provides a mediated sensory experience that doesn’t overwhelm the senses, enabling a calm but alert level of arousal and increased attention. It’s a blank slate for imagination and creativity, with no preconceived ideas, which facilitates generating original play schemes, attempting novel actions, and problem solving or adapting as needed. It provides kids with opportunities to take measured risks, fostering their ability to assess and maintain their own safety, as well as build confidence and resilience (Hanscom, 2016).

With all of this in mind, know that free time outside is not wasted time. It is providing your child to seek out the just right opportunities to progress in their development. And when you join them, you may feel the benefits of spending time outdoors too!

Take Home Tips:

  • Model! If you are outside playing, getting dirty, exploring, and exclaiming with awe and wonder, your child will too.
  • Let your child lead! Allow yourself to follow their interests, their direction, their energy.
  • Give space. Allow children to navigate challenges and get some bumps and scrapes along the way.
  • Invite other children over to play in your yard or at a nearby park.
  • Start a nature collection bowl or a nature journal in order to inspire and motivate outdoor adventures and provide opportunities for reflection on that time.
  • Provide opportunities for outdoor play before and after school, prior to having to complete seated tasks.
  • Challenge yourself to support the family in spending time outside every day.
  • It’s never too early for kids to be outside! Even infants benefit from being outdoors: tummy time, tactile exploration, naps, picnics, play, and gross motor exploration can all take place in outdoor spaces.
  • I highly recommend the book Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom, occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, for more information on how free play outdoors supports children’s health and development.

Parent Resources

  • Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscomb (great parent resource with supporting evidence)
  • Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Evan McGown, and Ellen Haas (theoretical framework, parent resource, activities)
  • The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (supporting evidence and parent resources)
  • I Love Dirt by Jennifer Ward (activities)
  • 15 Minutes Outside by Rebecca P. Cohen (activities)
  • The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms by Clare Walker Leslie (activities)
  • Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell (activities)
  • Camp Granny by Sharon Lovejoy (activities)
  • How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson (supporting evidence and parent resources)

  • The UW Arboretum – – Earth Focus Day Camp
  • The Aldo Leopold Center – – Summer Camp, Daycare, Preschool, & Afterschool programs
  • Wild Harvest Nature Connection – – Outdoor-based children and families program
  • Wisconsin State Parks –
  • CamRock Sports –
  • Madison School & Community Recreation –
  • Wingra Boats –
  • Boulder’s Climbing Gym Adaptive Climbing Program –


By: Megan Barrow, MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist

  • American Academy of Pediatrics, (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123 (2): 431-436
  • Arnold, K. (May 20, 2016). The importance of free play for kids. Outside Magazine Online. Retreived from
  • Peter Gray, (2014). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American
    Journal of Play, 3(4): 443-463
  • Ginsburg K.R., (2007). Commitee on communicatons, and the commitee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health: The importance of play in promotng healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1):182-191.
  • Hanscom, A. (2016). Balanced and barefoot: How unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident, and capable children. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  • Hanscom, A. (May 12, 2014). Nature is the ultimate sensory experience: A pediatric occupational therapist makes the case for nature therapy. Children and Nature Network. Retreived from
  • Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
  • Thian, D. (2006). The importance of play. Curriculum & Leadership Journal, 4 (24).