Before she became a famous scientist and inventor, Temple Grandin was a kid who liked to play outside.
“I absolutely loved flying kites,” she said. “We would just make up our own games — go sit in the field and make daisy chains.” All that undirected, childhood play, Grandin believes, amounted to more than goofing off. It was a foundation for her life in the sciences.
Now an animal behavior expert and professor at Colorado State University, Grandin has published more than 60 scientific papers. She is an advocate for people with autism, and in 2010 landed on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In her new children’s book “The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World,” released April 6, she encourages kids to follow her lead into the great outdoors. Time outside, she thinks, helps kindle curiosity that is the essence of science.
“If you are fascinated by clouds or the spots on a ladybug’s back; if you like to split open rocks and see what’s inside, then you’re already an outdoor scientist,” Grandin wrote.
Not enough kids have the opportunities she enjoyed to get dirty, make things and discover their own sense of wonder, she said. “Kids just aren’t outside enough doing it on their own — we need to teach it.”
That’s why she’s asking adults to throw open the doors and send kids outside. Her book, which includes ideas for hands-on projects children can do in nature, joins a chorus of advice from researchers and psychologists who insist kids need outdoor time to thrive.
Here’s why it’s important and how to get started, even if your kid would rather stay on the couch.
How getting outside helps children learn
Until recently, the connection between learning and exposure to nature was poorly understood, wrote Ming Kuo, associate professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a recent review paper.
Everyone thought nature was good for kids, she wrote, but they didn’t have robust research to support the thesis.
Now, that’s changing. Analyzing dozens of studies, Kuo found strong evidence that exposure to nature promotes attention and relieves stress.
It boosts self-discipline and motivation. It’s tied to physical fitness, and also increases kids’ autonomy. The positive effect doesn’t require trips to faraway places, the research found. Just adding green spaces and trees to urban schools makes a real difference.
Exploring natural areas outside of school can really help, though, whether it’s a trip to a city park or time in the closest patch of woods.
“Children are able to be more imaginative and engage in more pretend play when they’re in unstructured nature play areas,” said Kylie Dankiw, a researcher at the University of South Australia and author of a 2020 review paper on the benefits of playing outside.
Kids playing in natural areas engaged in more of what Dankiw called “cognitive play,” where they use their imaginations to create their own games. “Imaginative play is really important for developing social skills, interacting with other people and problem solving,” she said.
Playing in the dirt could lead to making scientific breakthroughs
What should kids do with all that outside time? It can be as simple as laying around in the grass, finding the beauty in insects, plants and clouds.
“Just playing freely in and with nature,” Dankiw said, “where the child chooses what they want to do and how they want to play.” Outdoor time, in other words, doesn’t need to be structured.
If you want to offer your kid some inspiration, however, Grandin’s book includes 40 child-friendly projects, some that engage young readers with scientific principles. Kids can make a model rocket powered by baking soda, for example, or craft a pine cone bird feeder to hang from nearby trees or an apartment window.
You never know where the project might lead. Many scientists, Grandin wrote, have followed their childhood interests to a life of discovery, and she shares some of their stories in the book.
As a child in 19th-century England, Mary Anning joined her siblings to collect seashells near the cliffs of Lyme Regis. That’s where, at 12 years old, she helped uncover the first complete Ichthyosaurus skeleton. The momentous find led to a life in paleontology.
In the United States, a young B.F. Skinner spent his childhood in the woods around his Pennsylvania home, fascinated by the antics of birds, butterflies and chipmunks. After years of study, Skinner’s childhood interests would transform the field of animal behavior.
It’s not that they knew, as children, that their interests would endure a lifetime. Grandin didn’t, either.
“I also had no idea that all the stuff I loved doing as a kid would come to inform my life’s work,” Grandin wrote. “I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.” For Grandin and other scientists, though, playing outdoors turned out to be a life-changing opportunity.
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Getting your child out the door
Of course, not all kids actually want to go outside. With the right approach, though, psychologist Mary Alvord of Rockville, Maryland, said parents can do a lot to encourage positive experiences in the natural world.
It helps to make it part of your family’s routine. “When my kids were young, they would come home from school, have a snack, then it was like: ‘All right, you have to go outside and play before you start anything else,’” she said. “From the start, it’s about setting the expectation that there is outdoors time.”
If that isn’t already on the family schedule, Alvord suggested parents be open and honest about wanting to make a change. Call a family meeting and make it a conversation, she said.
“Say, ‘We want to start putting in outdoor time — what would you like to do outside? What are some things we could do either as a family, or you could do by yourself, or with a sibling or with friends?’”
When introducing more time outdoors, Alvord said parents may have to do some reframing to get kids on board.
“The frame is: How can you make it appealing and fun?” she said. If it’s cold and rainy outside, that might mean presenting the day as a chance to jump in puddles or look for frogs. Every season, Alvord said, brings changes that can engage children’s curiosity.
If your child says she doesn’t want to go out because she’s doing something else, Alvord suggested giving her a chance to wind down. “Say, ‘Our outdoors time starts in 15 minutes,’” she said, so they can finish a game or wrap up another activity.
Parents’ attitudes count for a lot, Alvord said, which may mean getting out of your own comfort zone even as you’re encouraging your child to head outdoors.
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Try rethinking your attitude toward “bad” weather or getting dirty, for example. And if you’re hoping to nurture your child’s sense of wonder at the natural world, it could help to reconnect with your own, whether you’re watching the stars, going for a hike or just feeding birds in a nearby park.
“It’s not ‘do as I say,’ it’s ‘do as I do,’” she said. “Kids learn from us by seeing what we do.”
Jen Rose Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Find her work at jenrosesmith.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenrosesmithvt.