Why Should My Child Play Outside? Benefits of Outdoor Play for Kids
On average, today’s kids spend seven hours a day staring at electronics like phones, laptops, tablets and television. Evidence demonstrates that kids today tend to swap active outdoor recreation for more sedentary activities, often to the detriment of their health and quality of life.
If you’re like most parents, you probably already knew your kids tend to spend more of their waking hours in front of a screen than playing outdoors. Influential people and media outlets have focused on declining activity rates among children for years now — a notable example is former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign in 2010. Even more than a decade later, headlines about kids choosing screens over physical play are easy to find. Parents are beginning to realize the benefits of physical activity for their whole family, but many are still unaware of why moving is so essential.
As a parent, you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-rounded individuals with a strong sense of independence and compassion. The best way to teach these qualities to your kids is to get them outside.
Encouraging children to increase their time outside and away from their devices aids their physical health and helps them become emotionally and intellectually tougher. 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 playing outdoor games and stepping away from the screen and into the sunshine.
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- Physical Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Social Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Emotional Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Intellectual Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Importance of Outdoor Play for Younger vs. Older Children
- How Can You Encourage Your Child to Play Outside?
- Encouraging Kids to Play Outdoors With Miracle® Recreation
Physical Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
Spending time outside presents extensive benefits for children’s physical development throughout their preschool and elementary years. Outdoor play is directly related to a child’s physical strength, weight and immune function. Kids who are active throughout childhood are usually more likely to engage in regular exercise later in life.
Encouraging outdoor play in young children helps develop a healthy attitude about maintaining an energetic adult lifestyle.
When compared with their peers, kids who spend more time outdoors typically exhibit the following attributes.
1. Advanced Motor Skills
Playing outside allows kids to develop more advanced motor skills than children who spend most of their time indoors, including agility, balance and coordination. Kids who spend time playing outdoors are more likely to move in ways that challenge their muscles, bones and physical endurance. Outdoor environments give kids the space they need to walk, play and swing. They can play catch. They can crawl under bushes, climb trees and ride bikes.
When kids have the chance to engage in physical activity, they can strengthen both their bodies and their sense of self-confidence. Extended time outside also allows kids who play sports to practice their skills, like kicking, catching and batting – whatever they need for their specific sport.
2. Lower Body Mass Index
Only 7% of kids met the criteria for obesity in 1980. Three decades later, more than one in three kids could fall under the obesity classification. There are two main reasons for such a sharp rise in childhood obesity — Americans eat more and move less than they did in the past.
Children who play outside more often are more energetic than their sedentary counterparts, meaning they’re less likely to become obese. They’re not sitting in front of a television or computer for hours on end. Instead, they’re outside staying active and burning off calories.
According to one study, which examined body mass index (BMI) in preschool-age children, a direct correlation exists between a child’s BMI and the time they spend engaging in outdoor activity. Parents who allowed their children to play outside for longer generally had kids with a lower BMI than parents who limited their kids’ playtime.
3. Better General Health
There are many long-term health benefits to limiting your child’s risk of obesity. Obese children are more likely to develop health issues like asthma, sleep apnea, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Spending time in the sunlight can enhance your kid’s mood and bolster their immune system. Children who have ADHD can also benefit from outdoor play, as it provides a safe way for them to release pent-up energy that can create problems in indoor settings.
Outdoor play can also help kids get proper amounts of vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” since bodies produce it during sun exposure. It’s present in certain foods, but kids normally need more than just what they can get from their diet. Letting your kid play outside on sunny days is one of the best ways to make sure their body is making enough.
Kids need sufficient levels of vitamin D to build strong, healthy bones and teeth. One of the most important components of bone is a mineral called calcium phosphate, which the body can only absorb when it has enough vitamin D. Scientists are still researching the effects of this vitamin, but its other potential benefits include:
- Boosted immune function.
- Increased ability to prevent disease.
- Improved mood.
- Reduced risk of childhood obesity.
4. Improved Muscle Strength
Outdoor play activities help to boost a child’s coordination and strength. Take swinging, for example. As kids learn to follow the swing’s movement, they’re engaging all their muscles to hold on and sit up.
Swinging may seem like a repetitive playground activity, but it pushes young kids to develop muscles. Other outdoor toys such as bikes, skateboards and scooters also push your child to engage and strengthen their muscles.
Social Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
Playing outside comes with many physical benefits, and it also provides a remarkable opportunity for children to develop socially. Playing together with their peers allows kids to learn important social skills like empathy, cooperation and friendship, which could help them to succeed later in life. Consider these notable advantages.
1. Easier Communication With Others
Indoor settings for kids are often smaller, sometimes prompting kids to compete with others, such as siblings or classmates, for the attention of adults. These situations can overwhelm kids, often causing them to feel intimidated and withdrawn from their peers and caregivers.
Because they’re in an open space without competition, kids who spend more time outdoors usually feel less daunted – having enough space to breathe and move around can make children more comfortable opening up and sharing their feelings with trusted adults.
2. Greater Self-Awareness
Children who play outside are more likely to develop observational and reasoning skills. Playground activities, like swinging, have many physical benefits for kids. Being outdoors also lets them see the world from different perspectives. It shows them how to be aware of the space they’re in and teaches them concepts like cause and effect as an adult pushes them on a swing.
3. Appreciation for the Environment
According to one study, 87% of people who regularly played outside as kids valued nature as adults. Out of that sample, 84% said they still believe taking care of the environment should be a priority.
There’s a simple cause for this passion — kids learn to love nature through their own experiences with flora and fauna. They listen to birds sing from the trees. They catch fireflies and ladybugs. They witness sunsets, plant flowers and explore parks.
These wonderful memories drive them to become informed, compassionate adults. They know the value of these spaces, so they’re more motivated to preserve them.
4. Improved Peer-to-Peer Relationships
Kids who regularly play outside are generally more self-aware, with increased awareness of others’ feelings. Interestingly, studies show that kids who spend time playing outside are less likely to become bullies later on.
Teamwork and imagination are necessary for outdoor play, which allows children to experience positive interactions with their peers. Kids who get consistent time to play outside are more likely to get along with others and find common ground.
It also doesn’t hurt that soaking up all that sunshine improves their moods. It’s harder to be angry at someone when you’re in a good mood!
Emotional Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
Along with the social and physical benefits of outdoor play, children who play outside tend to be stronger emotionally and process things more easily than children who don’t get ample opportunities to play outside.
1. Use of All Five Senses
Watching television only requires the use of two senses — hearing and sight. As a result, kids who watch a lot of TV have a limited capacity to process and respond to the sensory stimuli they encounter throughout their lives.
However, kids who regularly play outdoors experience more sensory engagement through exploration. These encounters help familiarize younger kids with a range of sensory inputs, helping them learn how to process this information better as they grow up.
2. Foster Independence
Studies have shown that outdoor play helps children build their sense of independence. Parents are usually near, but playing at the park gives children a feeling of freedom they rarely experience in other settings.
Kids have the chance to explore and experiment without the feeling of constant parental supervision at the park. This freedom allows them to invent new games with friends, try new things and learn their boundaries and capabilities. The confidence they’ll develop through these discoveries will help them as they learn and grow.
For instance, they can attempt activities and tasks that are impossible inside, working through questions they may have about their skills like “Can I make it across this balance beam?” or “Can I climb to the top of this ladder?”
3. Learn to Self-Reflect
Self-reflection is an integral part of learning how to cope with the stresses of everyday life. During unstructured outdoor play, children can take risks and try new things. As a result, they’ll experience a range of emotions in response to their failures and successes. Looking back on these experiences, they’ll figure out how to seek success and learn from their failures.
This new ability helps kids analyze and control their emotions. Kids who don’t know how to manage their emotions tend to lash out both verbally and physically, but kids who have worked through their feelings learn how to solve their problems in calm, diplomatic ways.
4. Build Resilience
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again. Today’s kids are used to comfortable environments and instant gratification. Spending time in the great outdoors, which can be unpredictable, can help kids learn to withstand emotional and physical difficulty.
Many outdoor and playtime experiences can teach kids to push through uncomfortable situations, building confidence and internal motivation. As a result, kids learn to work through their fears and stress, supporting more positive outcomes in their academic life and future careers.
Intellectual Development Benefits of Outdoor Play
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? Outdoor play has the following crucial advantages.
1. Aid With Brain Development
During unstructured outdoor play, kids invent new games, explore their surroundings and become more independent. In addition to their newfound self-reliance, they also develop their decision-making skills and organizational abilities. Through individual and cooperative play, kids learn to problem-solve, create fictional worlds and turn ideas into realities. These experiences teach kids to follow the rules and respect others.
2. Improve Interpersonal Skills
Whether they’re at the park or on the playground, kids frequently meet other children and learn how to build genuine friendships. They encounter people from different backgrounds, teaching them how to play with all kinds of children successfully.
Parents can facilitate this interaction by setting up outdoor playdates with friends. Outside spaces like playgrounds often provide children with the space to practice forming relationships without parental assistance.
3. Expand 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 strengthen their ability to count and learn about relationships between numbers as the score increases.
4. Spark Interest in New Topics
Spending more time in nature introduces kids to new sights, sounds and smells. All these unfamiliar experiences can trigger curiosity – what kind of animal is that? How long does it take for trees to grow? Your kid may discover an interest in science or environmentalism that they might not have otherwise.
Encourage new interests by providing time and materials for further discovery. For example, if your kid wants to learn more about rocks, you could help them build a rock collection or check out books about geology from your local library. Or, if your child wants to learn more about trees, take them on a nature walk at a nearby trail so they can identify the trees they encounter on the way. If your child can satisfy their curiosity, they’ll want to go back out to discover even more.
Importance of Outdoor Play for Younger vs. Older Children
Kids play differently at various life stages. 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 for children in their younger years and as they grow into adulthood.
Between the ages of birth and 2 years old, children have limits to 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 alone, developing their senses and acclimating to what’s around them. Around 2 years old, parents may see their child observing older kids at play, though they will most likely still prefer independent play. You may also 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, though it will still be minimal. 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 as hide-and-seek and other outdoor activities.
While outdoor play looks different as children grow and change, parents must remember all outdoor games and activities are 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.
Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Play
Youth depression and anxiety rates have skyrocketed in recent years. While the pressures of school and extracurricular activities are unavoidable, encouraging your kid to play outside can help them relax and refresh their minds for further learning. The following advantages are worth reflecting on:
1. Reduced Risk of Mental Illness
Research increasingly suggests that the amount of time a child spends in nature – or indoors – can significantly impact their psychological health throughout their life.
One 2019 study found that increased childhood exposure to fresh air and greenery is associated with better mental health later in life. In the study, kids who grew up in areas with more green space had a lower risk of developing psychiatric disorders than their peers who did not. This discovery makes it incredibly important for kids to play outside whenever they can.
2. Lowered Stress and Fatigue
Today’s kids spend so much time indoors focusing on screens and school assignments that it can become overwhelming. In fact, many find that they have a harder time focusing the longer they spend on one task.
A popular theory among researchers is the Attention Restoration Theory, which essentially states that spending time in nature reduces stress levels and allows us to mentally relax, helping restore our concentration and ability to focus. We naturally engage in soft fascination when we’re outside, which is an easy, pleasurable state of attention. When your kid begins to feel stressed due to spending so much time focusing on one thing, take them outside to play to experience time in soft fascination and refresh their brains.
Spending even a short amount of time outside is proven to reduce cortisol levels in the brain. Your brain secretes cortisol in response to physiological or psychological stress, which is why it’s commonly nicknamed the “stress hormone.” Regulating this hormone is important because consistently high cortisol levels can result in adverse physical and mental effects.
3. Increased Happiness
According to a series of studies on our relationship to microorganisms, playing in the dirt can actually make you happier. Mycobacterium vaccae, M. vaccae for short, is a “friendly” bacterium naturally present in soil. Studies have shown that coming into contact with this bacterium can boost serotonin levels in our brains, improving our mood and making us more resilient to stress.
The solution? Let your kids get dirty. It’s good for their health.
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. Start Out Small
If your kid isn’t used to playing outside or with others, they may find larger public spaces intimidating, which can discourage them from playing outdoors again. Watch over them in case they need anything, but make sure they stay outside until they’re tired. Gradually exposing your kid to nature through playing in a backyard or just walking through the neighborhood can help prevent them from being overwhelmed when you take them somewhere else.
The more time your kids spend outside, the more they’ll want to play outside. Even though they may not want to turn off their tablet right now, they’ll become more willing to do so in the future.
2. Make It Fun
Children won’t want to go outside if they think it’s boring. You can easily make outdoor time interesting by incorporating your kid’s interests and hobbies into your chosen activities. For example, if you notice your kid loves watching sports or playing sports-themed video games, try starting up a game with them in the real world. They might find they love it off the screen as much as they love it on the screen.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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 educational games outside.
Giving children options — especially outdoor play activities — empowers them to break mental boundaries and discover passions they’ve yet to discover.
5. 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.
6. 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 With Miracle® Recreation
Playing on playgrounds is one of the best ways to encourage kids to be active and enjoy their time outdoors. At Miracle Recreation, we aim to create exciting play spaces to bring back the thrill of playgrounds. 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.
Work with our designers to build custom playgrounds around your needs and preferences. With your input, we can help you create a playground that sparks a desire for outdoor play. For more information about our products and services, or to request a free quote, check out our website today!