By Elizabeth Richards

When I was a child, I spent hours outside every day, playing games in my yard, riding my bike around the neighborhood, and stomping through the woods with my siblings and friends. We were largely left to our own devices, minimally supervised, and given free reign to manage our own play.

The amount of time children spend outside has declined steadily since my early years.  So, too, has the amount of “free time” children have – especially free time unmonitored by adults.  Structured classes and activities (often held indoors) have taken the place of spontaneous games in the yard. The lure of screens, from television to laptops to tablets and phones, also keeps kids indoors.

The myriad benefits that children gain from playing outdoors – especially in unstructured, child-led activities – are important enough to give it some attention. While these benefits vary depending on many factors – such as what kind of activity children participate in outdoors, the child’s temperament, the encouragement they receive to be active, and where they are playing (in a yard vs. in the woods, for instance), there’s plenty of research that indicates that outdoor time really does matter.

Some of the potential benefits of outdoor play include:

  • Exposure to bright, natural light which helps with Vitamin D production
  • Higher activity levels and space for big body movements like running, climbing, rolling, swinging, etc.
  • Cognitive development through hands-on learning – including science exploration
  • Improved focus, mood, and sleep
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased development of social skills, collaboration, and problem solving skills
  • Confidence building through healthy risk taking
  • Opportunities for developing imagination and creativity
  • Increased appreciation for nature and natural resources

Even when you understand the benefits that outdoor play offers, it can be tricky to get your children outdoors, especially when time is limited and/or children are younger, needing closer supervision. The key is to look at your schedule and routines and fit outdoor time in as often as possible.  Any increase in outdoor time is beneficial, so don’t be afraid to start small.

Ideas to fit more outdoor time into your schedule

Set a goal. I love the commitment of the 1000 hours outside movement. But that’s an average of 2.7 hours per day for a year, which may not be realistic for your situation right now.  Still, having a time frame in mind can help keep you motivated to get your kids (and yourself) outside.

Make outdoor family time part of your routine.  Set a time each weekend to seek out a park or trail nearby, take family walks every evening after dinner, or try to eat one meal per day outside.  Spend 10-15 minutes in the yard together when you get home from work/school instead of heading right inside. When an activity becomes a part of your daily routine, it’s easier to keep it happening regularly.

Look for nature schools, outdoor camps and outside activities. Especially with older children, who tend to spend even less time outdoors, prioritize structured activities that are held outside.  More and more early childhood programs are recognizing the benefits of having children outside more often, and there are plenty of camps and after school activities that have a focus on being outside.

Walk or bike your children to school.  Whenever you have time, consider leaving the car in the driveway and getting some fresh air and exercise instead.

Move indoor activities outside: Most of what you do indoors can also be done outdoors – especially when the weather is nice.  Plan play dates and birthday parties as outdoor events. Bring blocks, books, and dress up clothes outside. Become “outdoor artists” by drawing on the driveway or sidewalk with chalk, bringing an easel outside, setting up a crafting station on a picnic table, or using spray bottles with colored water in the snow. Have a picnic lunch. Set up a cozy spot and let your child nap outside when weather allows. Even most screens can be moved outdoors – and even if they aren’t more active, at least your child will benefit from the fresh air and sunshine if watching a show outside.

Plan ahead.  In a climate like ours, weather is a top consideration – and sometimes an excuse for not getting outside.  But with the right gear, almost any weather is a prime opportunity for outdoor play and learning.  Keep a rain suit and boots on hand for puddle splashing fun, and warm snow gear to allow for winter recreation. Then head outside and enjoy the amazing sensory experiences our weather can provide.

Follow your child’s lead and interests.  Maybe your toddler is a collector; encourage them to pick up objects like rocks, acorns, and pine cones for sorting. Older children might be enticed outside for a geocaching adventure, scavenger hunt, or more formal winter recreation like skating, skiing or snowshoeing.

If you’ve fallen into a pattern of indoor activities and play, adding more outside time can feel overwhelming.  But an extra 10 minutes per day is 3650 additional minutes outside per year! When you look at it that way, it seems more possible to get children outside more, doesn’t it?

Elizabeth Richards has been an early childhood professional for nearly 30 years. She is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and early childhood trainer. She has led parent workshops and developed courses for ECE professionals, particularly around managing challenging behaviors, art, and play. She has two teenage sons.