As I watch iridescent orbs float through the sunset sky I think, “Wow.”

In the age of iPads, iPhones, and numerous other electronic devices, something as simple as blowing bubbles can still stir up so much excitement. Although we live in a world of overstimulation, kids really do love the simple things in life and I think deep down, so do adults.

The peace and joy that comes from reconnecting with nature and loved ones; the feeling we get every time we leave our busy lives behind and embark on a new adventure. With travel we aren’t only creating awesome memories – we’re giving the gift of a childhood unplugged.

A mama friend made a comment recently about noticing an improvement in her child’s behavior when given less time on his video games. This made me realize that I’ve observed this change too, including when I reduce my daughter’s time on YouTube due to her high-levels of sass. Then I asked myself, “Why?”

I’ll admit, sometimes gadgets are a total lifesaver. I’m a big fan of iPads during family travel because they hold so much entertainment during plane, train, and road trips. Was it really just the electronics causing attitude issues or something else?

I started thinking about my travels and how I use electronics on the road versus at home, and how the day is spent in between uses. I also started thinking about how my kids seem better- behaved on the road versus at home, which is probably why I like to travel so much. 

Then it hit me: the great outdoors! Numerous studies have shown that there are many benefits to being outside, especially for kids, and when we travel we spend a significant amount of time outside exploring. I began to think that maybe the combination of extra time in nature combined with the lack of electronics was the answer. I did some investigating and what I found is quite interesting.

Benefits to playing outside:

Outdoor play offers not only physical benefits like increased balance, endurance, and hand-eye coordination, but has also shown to improve cognitive and social/emotional development.

1 | Improves mental health.

There’s a lot of research to demonstrate that people who live near green spaces have improved mental health. Taking it a step further, a 2000 study by Nancy Wells in the Journal of Environment and Behavior shows that children’s stress levels reduce within minutes of seeing green spaces. There is a drastic change in children when removed from highly urban areas to more open spaces.

The Episcopal Center for Children explains that outdoor play reduces stress and lowers a child’s risk for anxiety and depression. It can also ease some symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is something to think about for parents with children who have special needs. Incorporating time in nature into everyday life, as well as family travel, can have great results. 

Dirt is good too! I don’t know about you, but my kids love to wallow in the dirt and it makes me cringe. Well, I’m going to start embracing my kids need to be dirty, because the mycobacterium vaccae in soil mirrors Prozac’s effect on neurons.

When kids are feeling at ease, they tend to behave much better. With outdoor play children are not only improving their physical skills, but overcoming obstacles and building self-confidence. 

2 | Improves social and motor skills.

So self-confidence builds self-esteem, but the confidence is gained by overcoming challenges. When kids explore outdoors they have to use their imaginations, acquire new skills and learn to problem solve. By playing outside children are also gaining attention and working memory benefits.

Here is where the difference between video games verses outdoor play is best demonstrated. Video games have pre-programmed rules and kids just follow along, never really understanding why the rule exists. According to a report by Rae Pica in Early Childhood News, when children play outside they have to create their own games and rules, creating a deeper level of understanding.

This also plays into improved social skills, because with these invented games comes learning to work together, dealing with conflict and problem-solving. Remember grassy areas reduce stress, so we are all good!

3 | Improves physical health.

Playing outside requires kids to use their bodies. The physicality of outdoor play by nature improves flexibility, muscle strength, and coordination. They become aware of their bodies in space which benefits motor skills and balance. And running around helps kids stay fitter and leaner. 

In addition to physical fitness, nature does wonders for the general health of the body. For instance, being outside is a great immune booster. Yes, kids get sick less the more time they spend outside.

How Family Travel Promotes Outdoor Play

Travel takes us out of our routine and, depending where we travel, we tend to spend more time outdoors than we would normally at home. Sure, the use of iPads comes in handy during long- haul flights, but it is not the day’s main form of entertainment.

When we arrive at our destination the exploration begins. With no one rushing off to work or school, we awake each morning excited for what the day holds, what adventure lies ahead.

Family travel comes in all shapes and sizes. Travels may last a weekend, a week, a month, maybe longer. Whether our travels take us into the wild or the wilds of urban sprawls, there is always opportunity for considerable time outdoors.

Botanical Gardens and Parks

Traveling to big cities one might question where outdoor play would enter the equation, but cities have many options to spend time in the open-air. The key here is the travel mindset, nothing on the agenda but to explore. Not only is there a lot of time spent walking around the city, but there are usually great city parks to enjoy as well as beautiful botanical gardens.

No matter how amazing the destination, the highlight for my kids is always the playground. We were recently in Glasgow, Scotland and ended up spending a lot of time in the botanical garden. The kids loved running in grass, exploring the paths along the Kelvingrove River and playing on the playground so much that it became a good bargaining chip for good behavior later. If they behaved at the restaurants and tours, they were rewarded with extra play time at the botanical gardens.

The great thing about city parks is that it may require very little travel for many of you. Be a tourist in your hometown and enjoy the nature around the corner. “Make sure your child gets at least 15-30 minutes of outdoor play each day,” says Dodd White, president and CEO of Episcopal Center for Children. “If you live in an apartment building or don’t have a yard, try to get to a neighborhood park a few times a week, and leave your technology at home or turned off.” 

Camping and RVing

It doesn’t get more outdoors than camping. We often take RV trips with the family, and the kids are probably the best-behaved on these trips. When camping there is not a lot on the itinerary that isn’t outdoor related, so the time spent playing outdoors is pretty much endless.

The kids love the RV trips, because they’re relaxing and no one is rushing off somewhere. Camping gives us time to just be. We get to fully enjoy all the elements. Play among the earth, feeling the wind in our hair, roasting marshmallows and telling stories by the camp fire, frolicking in the water.

The slow-paced nature immersion that camping provides is not only fun, but is actually really good for our brains. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University Utah, discussed the three-day affect in National Geographic. Believe it or not, our brains do become fatigued and three days absorbed in nature acts as a mental cleansing.

Beach Vacations

Beach camping or staying at a fun beach resort provides fun in the sun and is extremely beneficial for physical and mental health. All that running in the sand and splashing in the waves is sure to be a blast and burn up lots of energy, but a study by J. Aaron Hipp in the Journal of Environmental Psychology shows that there are actual health benefits to a trip to the beach, including a shot of vitamin D and increased endorphins.

Salty seas have many benefits as well. The sea contains many minerals like magnesium, potassium, and iodine that help provide a healing effect as well as a detox for the human body. Salmon showed in a 2001 study in Clinical Psychology Review that swimming actually reduces stress and anxiety in addition to the physical health effects of non-impact exercise.

The beach is where our family spends the most time outdoors. Not only do we live near local beaches, but we also do a lot of beach camping and traveling to other prime beach resort destinations. Surprisingly enough, there are usually grassy areas near the beach, which really is the best of both worlds.

The takeaway from all this information is that everyone can benefit from time outdoors among nature. Do you have to travel far to get out of the concrete jungle? No, but our day-to-day lives are very busy and we usually don’t make time for decompressing outside.

When we travel we’re in a different mindset, a semi-relaxed state already. We aren’t rushing to work, getting kids to school, finishing homework, and making dinner. Routine, routine, routine; it’s driving us crazy and our kids are growing up too fast. Travel provides us the opportunity and time to reconnect with our family and nature, leaving you and your kids feeling refreshed. A childhood unplugged is often a happy one.