Why Should My Child Play Outside? Benefits of Outdoor Play for Kids
Today’s kids average seven hours daily in front of electronics, such as television, tablets, laptops and phones. There’s no denying what the statistics show — today’s kids are swapping active, outdoor play for a more sedentary lifestyle, causing severe consequences for their health and overall well-being.
If you’re like most parents, you probably already knew your kids tend to devote more waking hours to “screen time” than they do to outdoor play. The decline in active kids is an increased focus of influential people and media outlets, most recently by former First Lady Michelle Obama in her “Let’s Move!” campaign. But, while most parents recognize their kids aren’t moving enough during the day, some aren’t sure why it’s so crucial.
Most parents would agree they want their kids to be physically healthy, well-rounded, independent and compassionate individuals. What if we told you the best way to instill these qualities in your kids was to inspire them to spend more time outside?
Encouraging children to spend more time in the outdoors and away from technology aids their physical well-being, and helps them improve their emotional and intellectual health, too. Whether it’s a trip to a nature-inspired park or taking a hike through the woods with their family, there’s no denying the benefits of stepping away from the screen and into the sunshine.
Read the full article or skip to a specific section:
- Physical Benefits
- Social Benefits
- Emotional Benefits
- Intellectual Benefits
- Younger vs. Older Children
- Encouraging Outdoor Play
Physical Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
Children who play outdoors improve their motor skills, body mass index, overall health and muscle strength. Spending active time outdoors as a kid is also important for life-long health. Children that are active in their early years generally continue to be more active as they age. Encouraging outdoor play in young children helps develop a healthy attitude about maintaining an active adult lifestyle.
How does outdoor play help physical development? When compared with their peers, kids who spend more time outdoors typically exhibit:
1. Improved motor skills
Outdoor play has also been shown to leave kids with more advanced motor skills than their “indoor” peers, including coordination, balance and agility. Kids who play outside are more likely to enjoy activities like walking, running and biking. When children are outside, they have the space to run, walk, jump, swing and throw. They can play catch. They can crawl under bushes and climb trees and ride bikes. By allowing kids to test and stretch their physical abilities, they strengthen their bodies and become more confident in their movements. For kids who are athletes, extended time outdoors can also offer the opportunity and space to practice skills like batting, kicking and catching — whichever they need for the sports they’re learning.
2. Lower body mass index
In 1980, just 7 percent of kids were considered “obese.” Thirty years later, studies found upwards of one in three kids could be considered “obese.” The culprit of this dramatic rise in childhood obesity is twofold — Americans are eating more and spending less time being active. Kids who spend more time playing outside are less likely to be obese because they are more active. They’re away from the television or computer screen. They’re running, jumping, climbing and generally burning more calories than their sedentary counterparts. One study of preschool-age children showed a direct correlation between a child’s body mass index and the amount of time they are permitted to be active outside. The longer the child was allowed to play outside, the lower their body mass index. Studies have also shown kids who have close friends who also enjoy playing outdoors are more likely to spend more time outside. Therefore, encouraging kids to choose active friends can also benefit them.
3. Improved overall health
Limiting a child’s risk of becoming obese has many long-term health implications. Kids who are considered obese are at higher risk for problems like cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes and sleep apnea. Not only that, but exposure to sunlight improves moods and strengthens immune systems. Outdoor play has also been shown to benefit children with ADHD by giving them an outlet for the activity and energy that often creates issues indoors.
4. Improved muscle strength
Did you know when you’re pushing your child in a swing, all their muscles become engaged as they figure out how to hold on, sit up and follow the movement of the swing? That’s right. What most parents think of as a repetitive, sometimes monotonous, playground activity can help young children develop muscle strength. Outdoor toys like scooters, bikes and even skateboards require your child to engage and strengthen a variety of muscle systems as well.
Social Development Benefits
While there are many physical benefits to outdoor play, it provides a huge opportunity for social development in children as well. Some of the most notable benefits include:
1. Increased openness with parents and caregivers
When kids are indoors, they are often in smaller spaces and competing with other children, such as schoolmates or siblings, for attention. It can get loud and overwhelming, which often causes kids — especially younger ones — to be intimidated and increasingly quiet. That can prevent them from opening up and sharing with their caregivers. When kids spend time outside, they generally feel less overwhelmed because they are not in a confined space and competing with others for attention. This feeling of having the physical space to move and breathe often results in a child being more willing to open up and talk about things with their parent or caregiver.
2. Greater self-awareness
Kids who play outdoors are more likely to develop stronger reasoning and observation skills. As we mentioned earlier, a playground activity like swinging has many physical benefits for kids, but it also gives them the opportunity to explore the world from a different perspective. It shows them how to be aware of the space they’re in and understand the concept of “cause and effect” as they see what happens when a grownup pushes them.
3. Appreciation for the environment
In one study, 87 percent of individuals who spent time outside as a child carried a love of nature into their adult years. Of those same people, 84 percent said they still considered the environment an important priority. The reason for this is simple: By spending a lot of time outside, children learn to appreciate the environment because they have firsthand knowledge of plants and animals. They’ve watched squirrels chasing each other up a tree. They’ve witnessed a sunset. They’ve caught ladybugs. They’ve planted flowers, climbed trees and explored parks. As they grow, their fond memories of their childhood experiences lead them to more awareness and compassion to preserving the spaces they loved as children because they know the value of it.
4. Improved peer-to-peer relationships
Not only are kids who play outside more self-aware, but their awareness of others and their feelings increase as well. Studies have even shown that kids who play outdoors are less likely to bully other children. Outdoor play often requires imagination and teamwork, which helps children have positive interactions with each other. That doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments over whose turn it is to go down the slide or shoot a basket, but, in general, kids who consistently play outdoors are more likely to get along with their peers and find common ground. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that soaking up all that sunshine improves their moods as well. It’s harder to be angry at someone when you’re in a good mood!
Emotional Development Benefits
In addition to the physical and social benefits of outdoor play, children who play outside regularly also tend to be stronger emotionally and more able to process things as they grow.
1. Use of all five senses
Preschoolers who watch a lot of TV are only using two of their senses — sight and hearing. That can really limit their ability to process and respond to sensory stimuli they encounter as they grow. On the other hand, children who play outside are using all their senses by exploring the outdoors — perhaps even taste, as they catch snowflakes or raindrops on their tongues. For younger children, this familiarizes them with a variety of sensory experiences, so they are better able to process them as they continue to grow and develop.
2. Develop a sense of independence
Being outside has been shown to help children develop their sense of independence. Even though a parent is usually close by, generally children feel a sense of freedom when they’re at the park that they don’t experience elsewhere. They get the chance to explore and take limited risks without feeling like an adult is breathing down their neck. They can invent games with their friends, explore their boundaries and figure out what they’re capable of doing. The confidence that results from this will help them as they continue to learn and grow. They can try tasks and activities they wouldn’t be able to do inside and apply problem-solving strategies to questions like, “Can I climb across those monkey bars?” or “Can I reach that net if I jump high enough?”
Intellectual Development Benefits
Many parents think the best way to develop their child’s intellectual abilities is to spend more time learning in an organized classroom environment. But did you know encouraging your child to spend time outside is also a great way to develop their intellectual abilities? In fact, outdoor play has the following key benefits.
1. Aid with brain development
When kids are running around outside, they are inventing games, exploring the world around them and experiencing feelings of independence. Besides developing these feelings of autonomy, they also cultivate their organizational abilities and decision-making skills as they work both individually and with their peers to create games, solve problems and implement their ideas and solutions. As kids play, they also learn more about the importance of creating and following rules.
2. Improve communication skills
When they’re on the playground or at a park, kids have so many opportunities to meet other children and cultivate friendships with them. They meet people who are different than they are and develop the skills they need to play successfully with many different children. While parents do facilitate this to a degree, especially if they arrange playdates with friends to meet up in an outdoor space, often playgrounds and other common outdoor spaces allow children the space they need to practice meeting and developing friendships without assistance from their parents.
3. Expanded learning space
Putting educational toys and materials outdoors gives kids a chance to learn new information and skills by playing. It also shows kids they can learn anywhere, not just in classrooms and indoor learning spaces. For example, as they keep score during games, they are strengthening their ability to count and learning about relationships between numbers as the score increases.
Importance of Outdoor Play for Younger vs. Older Children
It’s no secret kids play differently at different stages of their lives. You can’t expect a 2-year-old to play the same way as a 6- or 8-year-old. But, even though they’ll show different interests depending on their developmental stage, children of all ages can benefit from outdoor play. That’s true not only during their younger years, but as they continue to grow and become adults.
Between the ages of birth and 2 years old, children are limited in what they can do outside, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity. At that young age, most kids will explore or play on their own, developing their senses and acclimating to what’s around them. Around 2 years old, parents may notice their child observing older kids at play, although they will most likely still prefer to play on their own. During the early toddler years, you may notice your child progresses from observing other children to choosing to play nearby.
Once kids move into the preschool phase at 3 to 4 years old, they will begin to show signs of interacting, although it will still be limited. You’ll notice a group of kids may all be playing on a jungle gym, but one will be on the slide, while one is climbing a ladder and another is doing something else. Then, once kids enter school, you’ll notice much more of a tendency to play games and organize activities together, such hide and seek and other outdoor activities.
While outdoor play will look different as children grow and change, it’s important for parents to remember ALL outdoor activity is beneficial to children. While a 1-year-old may not be able to swing on monkey bars or slide down a slide alone, they are learning a slide feels smooth, sunshine is bright and birds live in the trees around the park where you go to explore.
How Can You Encourage Your Child to Play Outside?
Whether your child is 2 or 12, it’s vital to encourage them to spend time away from the screen enjoying the outdoors. Exploring parks and playgrounds can be the way to help your kids enjoy being outside, whether they’re playing alone or with their friends.
Here are some ways you can encourage your child to play outside.
1. Make It Fun
Children won’t want to go outside if they think it’s boring. Spark your child’s imagination by providing them with fun things to do, like:
- Playing basketball.
- Playing catch.
- Hunting for treasure.
- Going on a scavenger hunt.
- Visiting the local playground.
Many children find enjoyment in technology. While there are many benefits of technology use in children, there are equal — if not more — benefits in outdoor play. Making the outdoors seem entertaining encourages children to leave their technology behind and enjoy their time in nature.
2. Take Them Places
Sometimes, the confinements of your backyard or neighborhood can put physical boundaries on your child’s imagination. Make outdoor play seem like a memorable event by taking your child places, like the community playground.
Children benefit from playground adventures, as well as other community outdoor play areas, in ways like:
- Learning how to collaborate and play with other children.
- Gaining independence.
- Experiencing a new range of emotions.
- Building confidence and self-esteem.
3. Provide Options
Boredom is healthy for children’s development. It allows children to explore their environment more. When your child comes to you and complains of boredom, remind them of their options. Some things you can encourage your child to do when they say they’re bored are:
- Bring outdoor toys.
- Try unfamiliar playground equipment.
- Play board games or education games outside.
Giving children options — especially outdoor play activities — empowers them to break mental boundaries and discover passions they’ve yet to discover.
4. Bring Family and Friends
Make outdoor play more exciting and beneficial by bringing family and friends into the picture. As mentioned, children benefit from playing outdoors with their peers. Engaging in outdoor play with your child hones the following skills:
- Motor skills.
- Emotion regulation.
- Group leadership skills.
- Cognitive flexibility.
Invite friends and family over to your house for some outdoor fun, like hosting an outdoor game night or a competitive relay race. Or, take the excitement elsewhere, like at your community park or playground.
5. Go Outside Regularly
It’s human nature to find comfort in familiar routines. When things are predictable, children are more confident to try new things.
Make going outside a regular activity within your family. Schedule a time for your children to go outdoors, like after school. Or, consider visiting the playground every weekend. Find what your child enjoys and stick to it.
Encouraging Kids to Play Outdoors
Miracle Recreation is one of the world’s biggest and oldest playground equipment manufacturers. We’re proud to say we continue to be one of the top industry leaders in innovation and safety. We love that we get to make products that are such a central part of your child’s development — and we don’t take that responsibility lightly.