The last few weeks of social distancing have us all going stir-crazy. But with the cold weather coming to an end, it’s a great time for your child (and you) to spend some time outside.
Play is a vehicle to help kids explore and learn within their environment. With this in mind, there has been growing research on the importance of outdoor play and its benefits versus just playing indoors.
History of Outdoor Play
As American cities became densely populated, the ability for children to play outside became limited. However, in 1885, an American woman living in Germany wrote a letter to her friend in Boston, mentioning that children were playing in large sand piles constructed in public parks. In 1886, Boston introduced “sand gardens” which were placed largely in poor neighborhoods, featuring digging toys and wooden building blocks. Over time, as their popularity grew, these sand gardens became the inspiration for larger outdoor recreational areas and playgrounds.
Nowadays, children spend only half as much time their parents did playing outside. On average, American children spend 4-7 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play, compared to 7+ hours of screen time. There are a few reasons for this decline:
- Parents are concerned about their child’s safety
- Growing presence of screen time and the number of screens around the house
- Academic and extracurricular activities resulting in over-scheduled children
This decrease in outdoor play has been correlated to drops in creative thinking, reduced social interactions with peers, and increased mental and physical health issues.
Benefits of Outdoor Play
Outdoor play is essential to a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Here are some facts on how nature helps in these areas:
- Research has found that higher Vitamin D levels from playing in the sun builds stronger bones and decreases chronic health conditions when kids get older.
- Exposure to natural elements in a child’s environment improves their immune system, reducing allergies and autoimmune problems.
- Playing outside allows for children to test their physical capacities. A study shows that children who played outside were faster on their feet compared to their “indoor” counterparts when completing a 10-meter race.
- An optometry and vision science study found that children who played outside regularly were less likely to become nearsighted.
- Children utilize all 5 senses when playing outside (sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch) compared to those who are engaged in excessive screen time which only uses 2 of them (hearing and sight). This limitation can negatively impact a child’s development regarding how they perceive their environment.
- Playing outside can help children maintain a healthy circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). Outdoor play produces melatonin, allowing them to fall asleep earlier in the evening.
- Evidence suggests that repeated exposure to unstructured outdoor play has a positive impact on cognitive executive functions such as self-control, working memory, and adaptability.
- Research reveals that hands-on exploration outdoors helps young children learn new words. For example, they learn how to squish mud between their hands, realize that ice cream melts in the sun, or that leaves crunch when stepped on.
- Children who play outdoors are more apt to be curious, self-directed, and stay on task longer.
- Studies observed that children diagnosed with ADHD displayed fewer symptoms when they spent significant time outdoors.
- Children playing in the sun helps children focus as the bright lights enhance the formation of synapses in the brain which are necessary for learning and retaining new information.
- Children who play outdoors have greater environmental awareness. They are more likely to appreciate wildlife, and are more mindful of how their actions affect their environment.
- Researchers revealed that nature-connected children were less likely to suffer from emotional difficulties and more likely to display kindness towards others.
- Children who engage in outdoor risky play (activities that involve uncertainty and a possibility of physical injury, like playing at great heights) learn to assess risk more accurately. Evidence implies that allowing children a certain level of independence strengthens their self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate, decreasing the chances of developing anxiety.
- Unstructured outdoor play allows for children to learn turn-taking, sharing, communication, cooperation, and organizational skills.
- On average, children who spend the most time outdoors are more cooperative and more social expressive. They are better able to verbalize their wants/needs and play well with others.
Keep in mind this research pertains to unstructured, unguided outdoor play, like running around the jungle gym, or talking walks in green spaces. Sports and outdoor extracurriculars are considered structured play, since there are rules, coaches, and set practices times. This is an important distinction and should not be counted towards your child’s outdoor time.
How do we get our child to have more outdoor play?
- If your child is struggling with pre-academic activities (drawing lines/shapes or recognizing shapes/letters/numbers/colors), allow your child to go play outside. It will likely help support their academic and social needs by promoting development of executive functions. *This is why recess is so important during the school day.
- Find friends to play with outdoors. Research suggests that kids get more exercise outside when they are with friends or siblings.
- Increase your child’s access to safe, outdoor play spaces. Researchers report that urban kids are more active when their neighborhoods closed off portions of streets for outdoor play.
- Offer children outdoor venues that feature structures to climb, based to their developmental abilities. Provide kids construction materials, access to dirt, sand, and water.
It can be difficult to find a balance between scheduled activities, screen time, and unstructured play; especially now when most dedicated playgrounds are closed. But once they reopen, we hope you will give your kid some quality outdoor time. Make sure you provide adequate supervision, but allow your child to explore freely and take initiative. Even adults benefit from spending time in the sun and fresh air. Use this time for everyone to unwind, unplug, reset, and have a little fun.
“The History of Playing Outdoors“, Dexter Lane. Nature Explore,
May 22, 2014.
Outdoor play, Mariana Brussoni. Encyclopeid aon Early Childhood Development, Updated May 2019.
“Top 5 benefits of children playing outside“, Danae Lund PhD, LP. Sanford Health, June 26, 2018.
“12 benefits of outdoor play (and tips to help your child get them)“, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.. Parenting Science, 2019.