The benefits of unstructured play for children are twofold. Not only does the freedom provide essential skills for early development, but it allows for a greater connection to the outdoors. According to the American Psychological Association, play that is not organized and generally doesn’t have a defined purpose helps children better manage their emotions, build healthy bodies and make sense of life around them.
“Research shows that kids who spent more time in green spaces growing up had lower rates of mental illness as adults,” says Jenna Glover, clinical child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “So, that’s what I tell parents: what you do now with your kids outdoors will protect them throughout their lives.”
Especially in the age of technology, kids are exchanging time in the mud for hours glaring at a screen. Generation Wild was created by Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) in 2017 to combat just that.
Jenna Glover, clinical child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, tells parents: what you do now with your kids outdoors will protect them throughout their lives.
Further, the pandemic revealed how time in the outdoors was key to fighting the emerging mental health crisis. In fact, a 2021 report said there has been an increasing global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents. Today, Generation Wild is spreading their motto state-wide to directly address this issue: get kids outside.
“Kids are under pressure these days. Family life is always busy, but the pandemic upended normal routines, adding to stress. The year took its toll on all of us, and especially kids,” says Chris Castilian, GOCO executive director. “Now more than ever, it’s important for kids to get outside for stress-relieving nature breaks — to feel free and easy and let their imaginations run wild.”
Launched last June, Generation Wild’s “Just 20 Minutes Outside” campaign features a list of 20 ideas for spending 20 minutes outside — available in both English and Spanish.
Why 20 minutes? Research shows just 20 minutes outside can reduce stress and other behavioral issues brought on by the pandemic.
The list’s imaginative suggestions don’t require spendy camping gear or a long drive to the mountains. Instead, it offers ideas like scavenger hunts, bike obstacle courses, mud parties, picnic lunches and more.
“Kids have so much stress. Any time we can take away their stress and let a little air out of that balloon, that helps it from bursting,” explains Glover. “Having outdoor time on a regular basis is one of the ways to help kids be resilient and actually protect against developing a mental illness.”
Generation Wild’s “Outdoor Stewardship” campaign also emphasizes that while we need time in the outdoors, it’s important to be respectful of the plants and animals who live there. The goal is to minimize impact while maximizing enjoyment outside. The four easy steps, drawn from Leave No Trace Principals, are as follows: please leave what you find; please stay on the trail; please clean up dog waste and trash; please give wildlife their space.
50 “trash monsters” were installed throughout the state and feature slogans such as “Feed me, not the animals.” They can be found across Denver, Paonia, Crested Butte, Loveland, Hotchkiss, Glenwood Springs, Alamosa, Colorado Springs, Littleton and more.
In 12 Colorado communities, diverse, locally-based Generation Wild coalitions are creating equitable access to the outdoors with new places to play, outdoor programs and pathways to leadership opportunities and jobs in the outdoors. Learn more and download the “20 Ideas List” at generationwild.com.
Photos courtesy of Generation Wild.
Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2021-22 issue.