This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclaimer for more info.
Unfortunately, 2020 was a rough year for families. A lot of people (including children) stayed indoors more, and distance learning kept children in front of computer screens for extended periods. Encouraging children outside ensures a child’s healthy development, however. After reading this article, you will probably want to push your children outside more. I will also give you ideas on encouraging your child to play outside.
When we bought our first house, we praised the tiny backyard as low-maintenance. However, after having kids, we quickly realized the drawbacks of our backyard. Our children loved playing outside, but our backyard lacked space for them to play.
Although our current backyard isn’t huge, it’s noticeably larger than our prior backyard. More importantly, it has grass and trees! Our kids easily spend up to 6 hours a day playing outside when the weather is nice. They go in an out throughout the day.
Children have an innate desire to play in nature. However, if you don’t foster this desire, they’ll gradually lose their appetite for the outdoors and rely on being indoors. Although the latter can be convenient, it is not ideal for childhood development.
Benefits of Nature on Humans Generally
Research shows that spending time in nature positively affects our health and well-being. In one study, researchers noted benefits to the physical health and mental wellbeing of subjects that spent at least 120 minutes a week outdoors. Getting 120 minutes a week isn’t that hard if you divide it up among days.
Another study showed that individuals who spent two nights in a forest had lower inflammatory and stress response levels than individuals who spent the nights in the city. The forest group also had lower levels of cortisol and a plasma vasoconstrictor typically tied to hypertension.
Thus, it’s clear that spending time in nature benefits adults. What about with children outside? The answer: a resounding “yes!” (Protip: pair time outside with yoga for even greater benefits!)
Benefits of Children Outside: General Childhood Development
Richard Louv introduced the phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in 2005 and attributed the growing trends of diminished senses, attention difficulties, obesity, and mental and physical illnesses to the increasing amount of time children spent indoors.
Technology has been a major culprit. Like adults, when children are indoors, they tend to spend more time looking at screens. Some sources estimate that the average child now spends 6 to 9 hours a day in front of a screen.
I know firsthand how addictive screens can be with children. My kids can watch TV or use a tablet for hours if I let them. That’s why I usually limit screen time during the day. They are used to limited screen time, so find other ways to entertain themselves.
Also, parents may face the dilemma of wanting children to complete schoolwork instead of letting them play outside. With many schools getting increasingly competitive and intensive, kids are spending less time playing outside on average. For these kids, I would still encourage outside time, which I’ll discuss later on in this article.
It is important to cultivate children’s love of nature and playing outside.
Benefits of Children Outside: Specific Development
Benefit #1 of Children Outside: Sensory Development
Among other deficits, spending too much time indoors can harm your kid’s eyesight. This study revealed that the prevalence of myopia (i.e. nearsightedness) was significantly greater in 6- to 7-year-olds who spent more time inside than children outside (the former spent about 3 hours a week outside versus the latter group, who spent almost 14 hours a week outside).
Indeed, one estimate is that about 30% of adults and even children now suffer from myopia. The suspected reason is that children now spend more time focusing on close-up objects like books and screens indoors, instead of spending time outdoors. In contrast, being outside allows children to focus on objects of various distances.
Allowing children to be in nature cultivates (and thus, strengthens) their use of all five senses, plus the two “hidden” senses of the vestibular and propiorception senses.
Benefit #2 of Children Outside: Mental/Behavioral Development
This article links various behavioral issues in children to sensory or emotional needs that playing outdoors can fulfill. Among the behavioral issues are frustrations and aggression.
Lots of research has also linked kids spending time in nature with improved concentration, less hyperactivity, and greater impulse control. Thus, children with ADHD may showed reduced symptoms from spending time in nature.
Research has also shown that unstructured play (i.e. spontaneous or imaginative play without any particular goal) is important for brain structure and function development. Children who play outside tend to engage in more spontaneous, unstructured play.
Indeed, when my kids play outside, they constantly invent new games or imaginative play using whatever resources are outside (e.g. walking on blocks like an obstacle course, or making cakes by putting dirt into tins). Encouraging your children to cultivate their imagination is very beneficial.
One study linked increased cognitive performance in children who relocated to areas with greater greenery. Thus, nature is good for your child’s brain.
Benefit #3 of Children Outside: Physical Health
The more your child plays outside, the more sunlight he or she will get. Humans need sunlight to produce Vitamin D. Researchers have linked Vitamin D to proper functioning of the immune system and susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. Thus, children should get adequate sunlight.
Children who play outside also tend to be more physically active. One study showed that children who spent most or all of their time outdoors after school engaged in more moderate/vigorous physical activity and had better cardiorespiratory fitness than children who spent no time outdoors after school.
The trend of obesity and associated health issues is also continuing to grow, where a recent estimate is that 1 in 5 children are now obese. (Note: that figure is only for obese children, so doesn’t even include overweight children.) The numbers are alarming where one study concludes that most children who are obese after age 5 will go on to stay obese as adults.
Thus, it’s especially important for you to try to your child to be active early. Exposing kids to nature increases the chances of them being active!
Benefit #4 of Children Outside: Social Development
When children play outside, they’re more likely to engage in social interactions – whether with a sibling or at a park with another child. Oftentimes when I bring my kids to the park, another child ends up playing with them or vice-versa.
It’s nice that a lot of children seem to lack the formality of adults in making friends, i.e. they seem to skip the whole process of engaging in introductions and small talk before declaring another child as their “new friend.” I love how quickly kids can bond with other kids.
Playing outside, particularly in nature, definitely provides social benefits that playing inside in a structured setting (e.g. in a school or home) doesn’t. This study showed that children outside in nature exhibited far more positive than negative behaviors, and positive emotional responses to challenges.
The study also concluded that kids act more collaboratively and inclusively with other children when outside in nature, and also use more pretend play and games.
Thus, the benefits of exposing children to nature are undeniable.
Children Outside: Activities to Try
Children will often figure out ways to entertain themselves outside, whether using pure imagination or resources at hand. However, sometimes it helps to give them additional tools to play.
Helpful Tools to Fuel Play Outside
We tend to have the following in our backyard at all times, which the kids continuously cycle through:
- Sidewalk chalk (if you have stones/bricks/sidewalks to draw on)
- Containers of all sorts (kids can use them to collect rocks, dirt, leaves, etc.)
- Toy or real cooking utensils
- Toy vehicles and action figures/dolls
- Shovels or other gardening equipment/toys
- A water table
- A sandbox, or even just a tray of sand (or dirt)
- Water hose (if you don’t mind your child using it!)
- Water balloons (same as above!)
- A tent
Although my kids undoubtedly enjoy playing outside for longer stretches when they have a playmate (e.g. a sibling or cousin), oftentimes only one of my kids will go out to play alone or will play alone while the other two play together.
Thus, even if you have an only child, don’t be discouraged that they will get bored. When given no other options, children tend to find ways to entertain themselves.
More Structured Activities for Children Outside
Most times, my kids enjoy playing outside without any particular structure. However, they sometimes ask for or welcome activity ideas. Whether your child does the same, or is newer to unstructured play, here’s a list of outdoor activities to help cultivate your child’s appreciation of nature:
- Collecting interesting rocks, flowers, or plants (my kids really enjoy this during walks, especially when they present their finds as gifts to another family member!)
- Collecting rocks to paint, finding painted rocks, or leaving painted rocks for others to find
- Trying to identify plants, trees, or wildlife on walks (some phone apps try to identify plants when you take a picture of them, which is neat!)
- Collecting flowers or plants to make suncatchers (between clear contact paper) or to put in journals when dried
- For art lovers, sketching or painting vegetation, animals, or landscapes
- Using leaves to make crayon imprints (rubbing crayon on a paper over leaves)
- Collecting bugs in a jar (only temporarily, since the bugs will die if you don’t release them!). My kids sometimes enjoy digging for worms or collection cicada shells when the latter are around.
- Playing with leaf piles or helping you rake leaves (my son enjoys the latter!)
- Give them wheels. My kids like riding bikes, scooters, or roller skates outside, even if they’re not perfect at it yet!
- Easter Egg Hunt without Easter! My kids love when I hide things for them to find, regardless of how easy it is. If you don’t have plastic easter eggs, you can use small containers or even hide non-containers. I just put some of their small toys or objects inside the containers so that my kids can have fun opening the containers afterwards.
How to Schedule in Time for Children Outside
We take family walks almost nightly before bedtime, so my kids have just accepted walks as a nightly routine. Not only are walks good for your kids, but for you as well.
Family walks allow uninterrupted time between you and your kids, where we often engage in a lot of discussion for lack of other distractions. The kids seem to enjoy that they have our full attention for conversation.
Although lots of friends consider nighttime to be their “downtime” from the kids, whether to watch TV or surf the Internet, we find nightly walks more relaxing and rejuvenating overall. After you start walking daily, it will become a habit.
Because it’s our habit, we prioritize taking a walk nightly, even if it’s later than usual. You should try it and make it a habit, too!
Even if for just an hour a day after school, push your children outside to play. Since they spent hours in school, they could use a break before doing homework or something else sedentary in the house.
If your child participates in outdoor extracurriculars after school, then they may not need the extra time outside. Otherwise, encourage it!
Weekend Nature Time
As discussed, unstructured play for children outside in nature is ideal. Being in nature also benefits adults. So, you should do family hikes or other nature outings.
Most places have a hiking or walking trail somewhere, even if an hour away. Worst case, if nothing is close, pick a city park with grass or trees.
Our kids don’t enjoy highly structured hikes (i.e. hiking for long distances). However, they do enjoy having the chance to stop and play as they please along a trail. So, as an adult, you may have to adapt.
For adults, not having the structure or end goal of completing a full hike may be off-putting, so I can understand the aversion to hiking with kids. In that case, it could help to change the purpose of the outing to revolve around an outdoor picnic or simply a casual stroll through nature.
You might have interesting scenery nearby or without a couple hours drive, such as mountains, lakes, or streams. Take the time explore new outdoor places with the “end goal” of simply taking in nature and letting your kids enjoy themselves. Whether you think you’ll enjoy it or not, your health and well-being are bound to benefit!
Thanks for reading my article on benefits and activity ideas to encourage children outside. Please comment below on any activities you like to do with your children outside, or that your children do without you. I’d love to hear more ideas!