Outside! That’s where your kid should spend some time every day! That’s probably not happening, is it? On average, American children reportedly spend four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play compared to seven or more hours in front of a screen.
Outdoor play should not become a thing of the past. Here are five good reasons why it’s so important that you incorporate daily outdoor play into your child’s life.
- Builds a physically healthier child. Nowhere is better than the outdoors for running, jumping, throwing balls, catching, pulling things, lifting and carrying objects. All these actions require motor skills that improve with practice. Children get aerobic exercise and gain manipulation skills, such as pushing and pulling outdoor play equipment. Studies show children burn more calories outdoors, helping to prevent obesity and strengthen bones and muscles. Playing in the sunshine is a natural way to build up vitamin D in the body, which means stronger bones and less likelihood of developing chronic diseases. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, many children have vitamin D deficiencies.
- Contributes to cognitive and social/emotional development. Unstructured outdoor play helps kids learn to take turns, share and develop other positive behavioral skills. They are more likely to be inventive, explore and learn about the world around them and use their own innate abilities. While they are having fun inventing and playing games with siblings or friends, these interactions also help them improve communication, cooperation and organizational skills. Additionally, fresh air and free play reduce stress levels — the mess and noise they make outside, instead of inside, can go a long way to reduce your stress too!
- Improves sensory skills. An optometry and vision science study showed kids who play outdoors regularly have better distance vision than children who are always indoors. Preschoolers, in particular, learn new things through their senses. Think of a toddler’s delight at seeing new animals (sight), stopping at a bed of fragrant flowers (smell and touch), watching the water form puddles for stomping (hearing and touch) or eating a parent-approved berry from a bush (taste). On the other hand, children glued to television and electronic devices use only two senses (hearing and sight). This can negatively affect development of perceptual abilities.
- Increases attention spans. Children who play outdoors regularly are more curious, self-directed and likely to stay with a task longer. Children who spend most of their time indoors with little exposure to activities requiring their own initiation and follow-through show less ability to initiate or participate in new activities. In fact, studies of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) found that children with ADHD who spent significant time outdoors exhibited fewer symptoms.
- Stimulates happiness and better immunity. Outdoor light stimulates the pineal gland. This part of the brain is vital to keeping our immune system strong and making us feel happier. Spending time in nature is also associated with improving mood and happiness. An added bonus is that children who identify with nature are more likely to grow up to be adults who appreciate nature and want to protect the environment.
So how do you encourage your child to prefer the outdoors to electrical outlets and batteries? You may have to do some creative planning to get your child excited about the outside opportunities that await them.
Engage them in some outdoor activities that promote movement and enjoyment. For instance, let them dance outside to music. Better yet, dance with them! This is good interaction and exercise for all of you. Chase bubbles. It’s fun and gives them aerobic exercise. Take a nature walk together. You spend quality time together while enhancing their appreciation of the environment around them. Encourage them to talk about what they see, hear and smell. Let them stop to touch things and experience the world around them.
Plan season-appropriate things. If it’s summer, make snacks and let them have a lawn picnic. Take out the garden hose for splashing fun on hot days. When fall comes, make outdoor art with them using the changing leaves. Snow on the ground is a great opportunity for sledding, making snow angels, and building forts and snowmen. Spring is full of exploration ideas, such as identifying and learning about new plants sprouting through the ground. Encourage them to plant something and tend to what they plant!
Infect your kids with your enthusiasm. Tell them your outdoor memories as a child: a secret hiding place, practicing gymnastics on the lawn with a friend, playing tag with neighbor kids, etc. They will follow your lead.
Fun games can be taught, but let them invent their own play and games. Encourage your child to explore within the outdoor boundaries you have set. If you have one child, invite a neighbor child over for outdoor play. Most children like to be outside more if they have someone to play with.
Do you remember the days when you played outdoor games for long hours with your siblings and neighborhood kids? Many of today’s kids don’t know these games. Invite the neighborhood kids over and teach them some fun games. Soon, your children will be clamoring to go outside and play with their friends. Here are three you may remember from your youth.
Duck, Duck, Goose
Everyone sits in a circle. Then one player – the fox – walks around the outside of the circle, tapping people on the head and saying ‘duck.’ If the fox taps someone and says ‘goose,’ that player jumps up and chases the fox around the circle. If the fox makes it all the way around to where the goose was sitting and sits in their space, then the goose becomes the fox. But if the goose tags the fox while they’re running around, the goose goes back to their space and the fox has to start again.
Kick the Can
The more people, the more fun! It’s also a great team-oriented aerobic activity. An empty can is placed in an open area. One person is designated ‘IT’ and counts to 50 (with eyes closed) while the other players run and hide. IT goes looking for the hidden players and sends them to a space designated as jail. Free players who have not been tagged try to run and kick the can before IT can tag them. If they kick the can without getting caught, all the captured players are set free.
One person is designated as Simon and the rest of the children stand as a group in front of Simon. Simon tells them what they must do, but they are only to obey the commands that begin with the words ‘Simon Says.’ For instance, when Simon says, “Simon says jump up and down,” they do so. However, if Simon just says, “jump,” and they jump, they are out of the game. The last player still in the game becomes the next Simon.
Another advantage of the outdoors is that children make their own toys from things they find in their surroundings. Old boxes become obstacle courses and a branch on the ground can be the impetus for an hour of drawing and digging in the dirt.
Unstructured play of this type also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. It encourages free thinking, inventive activities and teaches responsibility. They learn what happens when a plant doesn’t get watered or a flower is pulled off by the stem.
The National Association for Sports and Physical Education recommends that children spend at least 60 minutes a day playing and exploring outdoors. If outdoor play hasn’t been a part of your family life, that might seem like an impossible goal but start where you can. Even 15 to 20 minutes is better than nothing! You will be taking positive steps toward having children who are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious.
For more ideas on getting young children — and even babies — to love the outdoors even more, check out Play Outside.