In Their Words: Elementary School Kids on Why Nature Is Important

Read the winning essays from a children’s writing contest

By Nature-Loving Children

June 21, 2019


Last spring, the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (of which the Sierra Club is a member) and the children’s publishing company Scholastic sponsored an essay-writing contest for children in grades fourth through sixth. The contest asked students to submit essays and accompanying illustrations explaining why the outdoors matters. Nearly 2,000 kids from across the country participated. The grand prize winner received a trip to Olympic National Park, and teachers of the other winning students were given free new educational resources from Scholastic.    

Here are the prize-winning submissions, lightly edited for clarity.


Grand Prize Winner: Violet M., fourth grader from Kalispell, Montana

“How Nature Improves the Brain”

American marine biologist Rachel Carson remarked in Silent Spring, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Numerous citizens of the United States don’t realize how fortunate they are to reside right by nature and experience the countryside consistently. Whether experiencing nature virtually or in the real world, the effects nature has on your brain are immediate. Nature enhances one’s attention span, creativity, and happiness while decreasing anxiety and stress levels. 

Something I enjoy about nature is how peaceful it is. Activities such as fishing, camping, and swimming are just some of the ways you can experience the outdoors. When I’m outside, I feel like the whole world is in balance. Studies show that being outside and a part of nature will decrease stress and make us more reassured. According to Jill Suttie, “The reasons for this effect are unclear; but scientists believe that we evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces.” This means we were formerly adapted to dwell outside like every other creature on Earth.

Researcher Jill Suttie also mentions, “In a now-classic laboratory experiment by Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University and colleagues, participants who first viewed a stress-inducing movie and were then exposed to color/sound videotapes depicting natural scenes, showed much quicker, more complete recovery from stress than those who’d been exposed to videos of urban settings.” This quote indicates that exposure to nature will have a faster, more effective recovery from stress. However, people observing urban settings didn’t have a remarkable recovery from the stress-related movie. In conclusion, these studies have proven that people in nature have reduced stress levels and are less irritable than humans that live in an urban setting. 

Further scientific research has proven that surrounding yourself in nature increases human happiness. The website Happy Brain Science states, “Merely viewing nature scenes is enough to remind us of how expansive and soothing a direct experience with nature is.” This quote is significant because it tells us that urban settings don’t advance our psychological fitness as much as being outside does. Being in nature has an immediate positive effect on the mind. I feel that being in nature and listening to Mozart is the perfect combination because enjoying music while in nature is beautiful, peaceful, and breathtaking. 

Author Kevin Loria states, “One study found that walks in the forest were associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods, and another found that outdoor walks could be ‘useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments’ for major depressive disorder.” As Loria acknowledges, just taking a hike within a landscape can decrease amounts of anxiety. So nature has a tremendous effect on the mind and the mood. 

Not let’s look at how nature affects the human attention span and the creative side of our brain. Nature can increase attention span and creativity level after devoting a short time outside. Kevin Loria states, “The attention-improving effect of nature is so strong it might even help kids with ADHD: They’ve been found to concentrate better after just 20 minutes in a park.” Based on this evidence, we see that children who suffer from ADHD can improve their attention span by experiencing nature. Loria further states, “Another study found that people immersed in nature for four days boosted their performance on a creative problem-solving test by 50%.” This evidence suggests that nature improves creativity. 

In conclusion, nature has calming, healing, and inspiring effects on the human brain. Nature has the potential to increase the attention span, creativity, and happiness. It can also decrease levels of anxiety and stress. Parks and other outdoor spaces provide a place for people to enjoy nature. Nature inspires us to be visionary, utilizing everything around us. Artists draw eye-catching landscapes, movie companies produce nature documentaries, and people set aside land to let our natural world flourish. In the end, it’s impossible to deny the fact that parks and other outdoor spaces are places everyone should experience and appreciate.


Honorable Mention: Katie B., sixth grader from Ellisville, Missouri

“The Great Outdoors” 


Swinging, sliding, and climbing at parks are only for fun, right? Not true! Parks and outdoor spaces are not only for fun, but are actually necessary for the world. Parks and outdoor spaces improve our health, environment, and relationships. 

Parks and outdoor spaces improve our health. Specifically, by going to the park, a person’s stress is decreased and happiness increased. Researchers from Finland set out to prove that parks decrease stress. When we are stressed, we release a hormone in our bodies called cortisol. The higher your stress, the more cortisol is found in your body. The researchers from Finland found that the people’s cortisol levels were lower in the park environments than in the city. They concluded that parks relax us more than being in the middle of the city. Not only by going to the park does stress decline, but feelings of happiness increase. When you exercise at the park, endorphins and serotonin are released. Endorphins are chemicals that are released in your brain with exercise. They make you feel more positive and have a better outlook on life. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in your brain that is balanced by exercise to make you feel less anxious and depressed. Overall, you feel happier when endorphins and serotonin are energized by exercising in the park. Parks and outdoor spaces also improve our health by strengthening our physical health. By being active in a park, you will lose weight, lower your blood pressure, and strengthen your muscles.

We are so fortunate to have parks improve our health, but we are equally lucky to have parks improve our environment. The trees in parks and outdoor spaces improve our environment by removing pollutants from the air. Air pollution needs to be eliminated because it increases the risk of cancer and can cause breathing problems. Fortunately, trees trap dust, ash, pollen, and smoke from the air, which helps to prevent our lungs from being damaged by these pollutants. A second way that parks improve our environment is by decreasing crime. Recent studies have found that maintaining green spaces, like parks, lower crime in cities. One theory to explain this finding is that well-kept lawns and community spaces encourage people to spend more time outside. While in those spaces, people tend to keep a close watch in the areas, which helps prevent crime. Another theory is that parks increase social activity, bringing in more people and thus pushing out crime. Finally, parks may bring more positive interactions and a greater sense of community, which increases ownership of the space and decreases criminal behavior.

Parks are great to help improve our environment, but they also improve our relationships. First, parks give a place to go to meet new people. With all the people interacting, it is a wonderful place to join in with a group to engage in the activity that they are doing at the park. In order to meet new people at the park, you don’t have to go through an awkward silence by trying to come up with small talk. Instead, you just join in the activity and the social connection is made through the common activity. Second, parks increase a sense of community. Children are playing together and praising each other. Just think about the first time you went to the park and you were leery of going down the big slide. Often, you watched others and those around you would give you the courage to try it. Those experiences tie us together with others rather than being isolated in our homes. We feel cared for and needed by others. 

Although there are several reasons why we need parks, not everyone believes that we need to build new parks. Some people recommend that we should not build any new parks because the parks that we have are not currently being maintained well. For example, it is reported that Grand Canyon National Park needs $100 million to repair the water system (Watson and Wilson 1). People opposed to building new parks become outraged when money is spent on building new parks. In contrast, those who are supporters of building new parks know that all communities deserve to have parks in order to build relationships, fight crime, and improve health. No city in our world should be excluded from having the benefits of parks just so that national parks are better maintained (“Eight Reasons” 1).

In conclusion, parks and open spaces have numerous benefits beyond only their entertainment value. Specifically, parks improve our health, environment, and relationships. Parks are necessary to improve our physical and mental health, keep our environment clean and safe, and strengthen our friendships. Due to these benefits, available land should be used to build new parks. We need clean and safe places to play, exercise, and meet new friends. Please remember the next time to vote “yes” in your city to create funds to build new parks. All of our cities need the great outdoors!


Second Honorable Mention: Indi M., fifth grader from McLean, Virginia

“The Importance of Outdoors” 

Children’s outdoor play is rapidly diminishing, and we are focusing more on sedentary lifestyles. No one can deny our simple interest with electronics now in the modern era. The outdoors are the original foundation of this human race. It is quite likely we are instinctively drawn to it. But it’s hard to ignore walking by a park, hearing no laughter. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that people are building universal cities, and wiping out natural landscapes and nature preserves as they please. There is no one to blame. We are the ones who are eroding children’s outdoor playing time, and reconstructing natural landscapes to something that will increase our world pollution is not helping whatsoever. There are so many reasons why the outdoors are so important, but the three main reasons are physical and mental health benefits, how it maintains the atmosphere, and how incredibly high-spirited it can make you feel. 

First of all, outdoor play time for children will fundamentally improve mental and physical health. Research reveals that pushing our own limits can educate us in understanding ourselves. Children pushing their limits does not mean lying inside, watching TV. Outdoor play will not only deepen our understanding of ourselves, but also compel us to deepen our understanding of each other. Like a free chance to physically socialize. Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing reported an essay on “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?” It states, “Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies.” This quotation explains the emotional and mental stress that will lift once you are met with outdoors. In “Let Kids be Kids,” Caileigh Flannigan says, “The absence of such play environments is not only influencing the quantity and quality of children’s play, but also affecting children’s health and well-being.” This illustrates the fact that health can improve from outdoor environments. Many people who work with young children know how fast bacteria and diseases can spread through this environment. We all know that when we are sick, we are not in a fit, healthy state. The outdoors, again, come to us at this stage; fresh air can reduce the spread of infection immensely. Johnson, Christie, and Wardle also state in “The Importance of Outdoor Play for Children,” “Outdoor play enables the infectious agents to spread out and be dissipated; it also enables children to get fresh air and exercise and be less constrained than they are in the classroom.” This supports that reducing time outdoors can help disease spread, and that a lot of fresh air can reduce that spread. My last reason why outdoors can provide health benefits is from vitamin D. You need vitamin D to absorb calcium. You get vitamin D when your skin is exposed to direct sunlight. To get direct sunlight, you must go outside. Given all the possible health benefits, outdoor play should be considered very important.

Secondly, without nature and outdoors, the atmosphere would fall apart. An EPA’s report on “Outdoor Air Quality” states, “Outdoor air--the air outside building, from ground level to several miles above the Earth’s surface--is a valuable resource for current and future generations because it provides essential gases to sustain life and it shields the Earth from harmful radiation.” This quotation explains how the atmosphere outdoors protects us from extreme radiation and dangerous gases. Outdoors do not only provide health benefits for our bodies, but it protects us from things that just scream out danger. There is one slight problem with this. The outdoors shield us from unwanted sources, so why do we neglect fresh air. When we pollute, or just release smoke into the air, we are creating greenhouse gases. Those gases rise to the atmosphere and thicken it. The consequences to this is that the rays of light from the sun hit our earth, and almost all of them stay, while some should bounce off. Our atmosphere is protecting us from extreme heat and destructive gases, so why thicken it from pollutants? I walk around this town quite a bit, and I am never pleasured with complete fresh air. I smell car exhaust. I smell too many things that I shouldn’t smell. The outdoors, the atmosphere, fresh air, whatever you want to call it, protects us. Why not protect it?

Finally, my last reason is about how good the outdoors makes you feel. In “6 Benefits of Getting Fresh Air,” by Rebecca Taylor a Kent-Teach Advisor, stated, “The more fresh air you get, the more oxygen you will breathe, which will increase the amount of serotonin (the happy hormone) you inhale, consequently making you happier.” This quote explains the research that has been done to prove how the outdoors can change your mood, to a much nicer one. Rebecca Taylor also stated, “You may have noticed after spending time outside, you come back indoors feeling brighter and perhaps ready to get back to work. More oxygen results in greater brain functioning, improving your concentration skills and providing you with more energy.” This quote explains how the outdoors doesn’t just make you feel nice and dandy, it can sharpen your senses with fresh air. Last year I went to New Zealand, known for its amazing landscapes and natural beauties, I was looking forward to it. We went on a hike as an activity through the woods one quiet morning. I wanted to be alone from my family, so I boosted up in front of them. Every beautiful natural sculpture fascinated me. Everything that looked absolutely unreal, I stopped to ponder. When the group finally caught up, I felt like I had been on an adventure! Free, high-spirited, bright, I was all of those at the moment. Being outdoors that day is a magical feeling and experience that I will never forget.

Why does just one gasoline powered car matter to the pollution of Earth? Why not just relax indoors with fresh air conditioning? Playing video games makes so many people happy! I can answer both questions, and logically respond to that statement. One car matters to the Earth’s atmosphere because seventy-five percent of Earth’s pollution is from gasoline powered cars. And every single one of those cars helps that to be true. Fresh air conditioning is not the same as fresh air. Sitting next to a noisy, dirty machine swivelling air at your face is not the same as going out to watch and enjoy the sunset. And it doesn’t take a completely intact, sharp mind to see how. It is true that many people enjoy video games. I wouldn’t think that when you play a video game, you scientifically become happy. I would think though that screens are addictive, and people feel encouraged to continue playing because of the competitiveness and urge to try and win something from playing. It is technologically proven that oxygen results in better brain functioning. Just a deep breath of air can feel good. 

Children aren’t getting enough outdoor time, and we are not protecting our planet with the care that we should, considering how it helps us survive. It is insane to me how we treat Earth when it is so clear what it does for us. There is no question, the outdoors is what makes life possible, it’s what we came from, why end from it too? Not dirty cities, not relaxing indoors with TV on. Because on the side of that modern electricity, there is burning coal and fuel. We need the outdoors, and it needs us. Physical and mental health benefits, how it maintains the atmosphere, and how incredibly high-spirited it can make you feel. That is plenty of reasoning to say the outdoors are important.


Sweepstakes Winner: Emmanuel O., fifth grader from Falls Church, Virginia 

“The Outdoors and People” 

The great outdoor spaces, aren’t they beautiful? An outdoor space is any place outside a living space where people can interact, play, and relax. This includes the backyards of homes, playgrounds for kids, sidewalks, biking trails, community parks, nature reserves, national parks, waterfronts or beaches, and farmlands. Some of my favorite outdoor spaces are lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, woodlands, parks, bike and walking trails, and beaches. I think that outdoor spaces are important because it improves a person’s life and wellbeing. 

One thing that is true about nature is that being outdoors can calm a person down and relieve stress. Paul Dudley White, of the Tyee Outdoor Experience LLP, said, “Time spent outdoors boosts concentration (even those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD), improves creative thinking, decreases negative thinking and stress, and can even wake you up as well as a cup of coffee. And all for free! That is about the best medical plan I know.” This quotation shows that being outdoors can help a person relieve stress. Being in nature, people’s minds are opened to a beautiful world, and finally help them to relax. It can also help people with ADHD walk off and release extra energy they stored up inside. Being outside can wake someone up, since that person is exposed to fresh air and daylight while walking, jogging, running, or biking. It is true that their body systems start to get active and therefore wake up. Creative thinking is boosted, as well. When a person is outside, they get to experience many things like trees, plants, animals, fungi, and other things that are in nature. These help them to think about new things or ideas that could help their work, home, and relationship with other people. This is why many towns, cities, and communities are building parks and educating people on outdoor activities, so that they can enjoy healthy living.

Another reason that the outdoors are important is because people recognize the beauty of nature. Many people enjoy hiking in the woods to appreciate the beauty of nature and use it for exercising. Some people like the colors of tree leaves and flowering plants. Others have a distinct respect for nature and the outdoors. For example, springtime in Washington, DC, is a remarkable period because of the cherry blossoms in the historic mall. People from all over the nation, tourists from other countries, come to the nation’s capital to see the cherry blossoms in their beautiful colors. Tour Guides tell people how the Japanese emperor donated those trees to the United States of America as a sign of friendship and peace after the second world war. The cherry blossoms in DC has now become a good outdoor tourist attraction and a symbol of international relationship between two important countries. According to John Muir, “In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.” This important man, also called “father of the National Parks,” was a naturalist who advocated for the preservation of wilderness in the United States of America. Some of the national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Shenandoah Valley, have become places for tourists, hikers, and campers. In particular, the Shenandoah Sky Ride, in the fall of every year, gives people the wonderful opportunity to see the changing colors of leaves on trees and plants. Many people have been inspired to write books and poems after seeing the beauty of fall in the Shenandoah Valley. As can be seen now, outdoor spaces are special, because it helps people to admire and enjoy nature.

My personal experience with outdoors started with my parents taking me to play outside in our backyard and front yard for recreation. My parents also took me to playgrounds where I played with other kids, and learned to run, climb, and slide. Our family has also toured several national parks such as Mount Washington in New Hampshire and the Virginia Shenandoah Valley. I remember an amazing and unforgettable experience of being at the peak of Mount Washington, which is literally so high and immersed in the clouds that I felt the wetness of the clouds floating by. I have also been to lots of parks for fishing in lakes and ponds, but none compares to my family’s trip to Virginia Beach. I went saltwater fishing with my dad using bloodworms. It was as if this bait was magically attractive to the Croaker fish that, each time I cast my line in the water, took the bait. I ended up catching 11 fishes that day. I was overjoyed and satisfied, because it was the most number of fishes I had ever caught in a single fishing trip. That remains my personal saltwater fishing record, for now. So, these personal experiences remind me of the joy, benefits, and satisfaction that comes from the outdoors. 

Even though the outdoors are beautiful and all, there are some things about it I don’t like. For example, I don’t like the biting insects, or being outside in the rain, and sweltering heat. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like going outside because it is uncomfortable to walk long distances with my dad. I also don’t like it when there are storms, or when I have to do garden work for long periods of time. I know people who are afraid of going to the woods, because they think that wild animals will attack them. Also, some people are afraid of being stung by a bee or wasp. But, wild animals and stinging insects will only attack or harm someone when they are provoked or angered. Besides that, an unprovoked attack happens very rarely, and under specific conditions, such as when a creature is stressed. This means that people should still be able to enjoy the outdoors anytime, if they take the necessary precautions. 

I believe that people appreciate the beauty of nature and the outdoors when they experience them. So, the common saying that "the taste of pudding is in the eating" is true. In conclusion, some of the benefits that the outdoors offer people include relieving stress, improving creative thinking, and increasing a person’s alertness. The outdoors is appreciated by people around the world, as I have experienced the beauty of the outdoors in my own personal life. So, why not go outside today and have some fun? You will appreciate it! Trust me.