The Importance of Outdoor Play

Outdoor play is important to children’s health and development, and as a parent or caregiver, can benefit you as well. Learn more about the importance of outdoor play from child development expert Shenley Seabrook.

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Children spend a lot of time looking at screens. In fact, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children ages 8 to 12 in the United States spend up to 6 hours a day on screens, inclusive of both watching TV or interacting on phones or tablets. For teenagers, this number increased to 9 hours each day. What this means is that children are spending less and less time outside than ever before, between 4 and 7 minutes daily spent on unstructured outdoor play according to the Child Mind Institute. Research shows that less time spent outdoors is having a negative impact on children’s overall health and wellbeing.

So what can parents and caregivers do about this? Many parents recognize that outdoor play is an important part of childhood. But learning why it’s important—how it impacts children’s physical, social, and emotional wellbeing—can help and encourage parents to incorporate outdoor play into a child’s routine and everyday activities.

  • Emotional Learning: Outdoor play can help a child improve their self-confidence while developing a sense of independence. Playing at an outdoor playground, for example, is a great way for children to play away from their caregiver while still having them close by. In this space, they can make up games to play with their peers, use their imaginations, problem solve, and try new activities and games. At the same time, children will be utilizing their different senses as they explore the outdoors, which helps them learn to better process stimuli.
  • Social Development: Kids who play outside often tend to interact better with their peers. Now, this doesn’t mean that they won’t occasionally engage in disagreements or have a hard time sharing, but outdoor play allows children to use their imagination, social skills, and emotion regulation skills. It can also help kids appreciate the environment, be more self-aware, and improve their observation skills. 
  • Physical Health: Outdoor play can help children improve their muscle strength, motor skills, coordination, and balance. Playing outside in a space where they can run, jump, swing, and climb can give kids the chance to move their bodies in a way that indoor play can’t. This can also lead to greater self-confidence. Playing outside can also improve a child’s overall health and immune system.  

Not only will children likely improve in these three areas, but outdoor play may also help children with their intellectual development and communication skills. When kids are using problem-solving and decision-making skills, making up games, sharing, and following the rules, they are using improving both their intellectual and communication abilities. And for many, spending time outdoors and in nature can help destress and improve a bad mood. This is a great tool for the entire family!

If you are looking to incorporate more structured outdoor play activities into your routine, here are some ideas.

  • Start a collection. Find something to start collecting, such as rocks, flowers, or seashells.  
  • Plant a garden. If you have the outdoor space, start a garden with your child. It’s time spent outdoors and your child will likely feel excited to watch something grow!
  • Organize a scavenger hunt. This may take some time, but organize a scavenger hunt in the backyard or a nearby park for your children. This is sure to be fun for your children as they spend time outdoors.

Want to explore other ways to encourage more outdoor play? The most important thing you can do is set a good example. Parents who spend more time outdoors tend to have children who do the same. And the more you venture outside, the easier it is to keep kids playing outside! When outdoor play starts to feel more comfortable and familiar, children are more likely to engage in more outdoor activities. Also, make sure the activities are fun and engaging. You can bring toys or games outside that they typically play indoors, play catch, jump rope, or go out and explore a new park or playground. While the type of outdoor play will look different based on the child’s age, any type of activity will be beneficial overall.

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Meet The Expert

Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.