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Science Says Building the Outdoors for Kids is Better for Everyone

Posted by jmoschella at Oct 12, 2020 02:30 PM |

Research has confirmed that nature is good for kids. That's why WTA has been working to create a future that ensures kids have more access to nature.

Research has confirmed that nature is good for kids. Maybe now more than ever. That's why WTA has been working to create a future and policies that ensure kids have more access to nature.

Science Says: Nature is good for kids

Last year, we shared insights from a new scientific study that looked at the impact of hiking on local economies and individual health. One of the lessons was how trails can impact children’s health. “Time in nature is especially beneficial for children’s physical and mental health,” the study found.

The study confirmed what many hikers already know: time spent outdoors is good for the hearts, minds and bodies of our children. What the study (Economic and Health Benefits of Walking, Hiking, and Bicycling on Recreational Trails in Washington State) did was back up that idea with data. It concluded that children’s social and emotional development, physical activity and improved cognitive functioning are all positively associated with time spent in nature. 

The science is clear. Our next step is making sure our policy and advocacy work continues to assist in creating these outcomes for children in Washington and hikers across the country.

Green Spaces Mean Better well-being for kids

The study demonstrates that experiencing trails and public lands earlier in life can lead to positive associations with time in nature for children and encourage further stewardship.  

One of the key takeaways is that nature offers a more enhanced experience for children than other outdoor activity. Green spaces and natural landscapes offer enriched outdoor experiences, according to the study, allowing for “more engaged and varied play”. The varied types of physical activity that you might experience on trail or outdoors offer even greater benefits for a child’s physical well-being. 

The evidence and positive benefits extend to children’s mental health. Contact with nature is shown to improve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), overall well-being, resilience, health-related quality of life and reduced stress. In one cited study, children demonstrated improvements in cognitive development simply by being in a school with surrounding greenery. 

For children, contact with nature also helped develop a culture of participation in environmentally-friendly behaviors. Some young adults cite their childhood experiences in nature as a motivator to join environmental groups.   

WTA youth gather in Olympia for No Child Left Inside lobby day
WTA Youth and the No Child Left Inside coalition gather together in Olympia to advocate for funding in 2020. Photo by Britt Le. 

Partnering to advocate for programs that get kids outdoors

WTA has been working on policies at the federal, state and local level to make sure that all children have the opportunity to get outdoors.  

At the federal level, Outdoor Alliance for Kids (OAK) works on the front lines to advance nationwide efforts that connect children, youth and families with the outdoors. As a member of the coalition, we work with OAK to advance policies like the Every Kid Outdoors program. 

Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) was developed in 2015 under the name “Every Kid in a Park”. The program provides free admission to national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife refuges for fourth graders and their families. In its first two years, the program had 2 million children sign up and saw $5 million worth of private investment. When  the Natural Resources Management Act passed in 2019, the Every Kid in a Park program was formalized and renamed by Congress as the Every Kid Outdoors Act. 

Closer to home, WTA has worked in Olympia on securing funding for the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) program. NCLI provides outdoor experiences to youth and underserved communities. The program, co-administered by Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and the Recreation and Conservation Office, awards grants every other year to organizations that provide students with an opportunity to learn about the natural world and become stewards of nature. 

As a partner in the No Child Left Inside Coalition, we have advocated for  NCLI funding each year during the state legislative session. 


During the pandemic, more people than ever are seeking refuge outdoors. Yet financial constraints may cause uncertainty in how many of the earlier-mentioned programs will be funded. Cities, states and the federal government are facing budget cuts as a result of lost revenue. This means that some programs primarily focused on youth could be in jeopardy in 2021 and beyond. 

Stay-at-home orders and pandemic closures have meant that many fourth graders and families have been unable to use the pass granted to them by the Every Kid Outdoors program. Recently, WTA and other members of OAK sent a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Berhardt to encourage extending the 2020 pass for last year’s for fourth-graders in hopes that no child misses out on the program due to COVID-19. 

The state budget was also impacted this year due to COVID-related budget cuts. After the No Child Left Inside program originally received an extra $500,000 to support unfunded grant requests, the revised budget approved by the legislature removed the funding. 

WTA's Programs

Beyond our policy work, WTA has long invested in getting school-age youth and teens outdoors through  our Outdoor Leadership Training (OLT) and Youth Ambassador programs. Both programs have been incredibly successful, and are built to take advantage of the magnifier effect, creating an impact for communities beyond the program participants.

Our OLT program supporting 500 outdoor outings and 10,883 outdoor experiences since inception. Since the youth ambassador program started in 2013, nearly 100 high school ambassadors have presented to more than 3,000 students at more than 30 schools and community groups to talk about the importance of getting outdoors. Their leadership projects have activated volunteers to join WTA's trail maintenance program, established new high school hiking clubs, led elementary students on hikes and shared their perspective in trip reports, blogs and magazine articles.

Some youth have even stepped up to  support WTA’s advocacy efforts, joining us for Hiker Rally Day and other lobby days in Olympia to talk to legislators about their love of hiking. 

Through stewarding and maintaining the land, and simply getting outside for a hike, youth involved in WTA programming continually share that they  feel happier, more connected and peaceful thanks to their time on trail. Just like the study shows, access to greenspaces and time on trail can lessen the impact of stress and support youth well-being.


For children from underprivileged backgrounds, contact with nature may be especially important. Differences in physical, social and economic living conditions can contribute to pervasive childhood health inequity in America. Unequal distribution of green space in wealthier neighborhoods exacerbates this problem for those who need access to greenspace the most.

Those are problems we're working to solve through our advocacy work and our Trails Next Door and Trails for Everyone campaigns. We're working to ensure that governments examine the health impacts of their of public lands policies. And we're working with local communities to create access to greenspaces, removing barriers to getting outside.

Looking forward, there’s more to do. Being inside for months during a pandemic means that every kid could use some time outdoors. The evidence proves just how powerful time in nature can be. We’ll continue to make sure that the decision makers in government know this when the time comes to fund these programs, and build new ones that help every kid get outdoors.