Benefits of outdoor play

Taking time away from screens to go outside and play has benefits for children and families.

There are many documented benefits of outdoor play for children and families. We all have spent a lot of time indoors in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; but children in general have been spending more time in front of screens than ever before. Taking time away from screens to go outside and play can benefit a child’s overall health.

Benefits of outdoor play

“Kids have spent a lot of time in the past year or more inside, in front of screens,” said Amanda Carter, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group – Elizabethtown. “It’s important for families to create time and space for their children to simply be kids and play — to create their own games, be creative and enjoy activity.”

Benefits of outdoor play can include:

  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays an important role in many of the body’s processes, from developing strong bones to the immune system. Sun exposure is needed for the body to make vitamin D. Additionally, getting some sun helps reset our body’s natural circadian rhythm and can help our mood. The human body is meant to get some sunshine every day — the important thing is to avoid overexposure and using sunscreen. Getting too much sun can cause sunburns and increased risk of skin cancer.
  • Exercise: Time spent going outside to play and run around is a great way to ensure a child is reaching the milestone of being active for an hour a day. Active play is the best kind of physical activity for a child, where they are having regular bursts of vigorous play that raises the heart rate. Active play can be an indoor or outdoor activity, but when a child goes outside to play and uses a bike or ball, the activity becomes more fun and engaging for the child.
  • Executive function: Scheduling unstructured time for your child, with and without other children, can give them the opportunity to figure things out for themselves, make their own games, use their imaginations and amuse themselves. This unstructured time gives children the opportunity to develop and practice their executive function skills, such as planning, prioritizing, troubleshooting, negotiating, multitasking and amusing themselves. Going outside allows them chances to practice these skills.
  • Socialize: Children learn how to work together, build relationships with friends, cooperate and engage with others in a positive way by interacting and playing together in an unstructured way. Kids can’t learn all of these things in structured settings such as school or sports teams; they need ample time and freedom to interact.
  • Learning how to take risks: Parents may wince at the idea of children needing to learn how to take risks. Parents want children to be safe and out of danger. However, if we shelter kids or prevent them from taking risks, they can experience issues later on. Taking risks is how children learn what they can do; it’s how they develop confidence, bravery and resilience. Children can get hurt from climbing trees, and they can get their feelings hurt if someone doesn’t return their friendship. It’s important, however, to encourage children to try to get out of their comfort zones, because they learn just as much from failure as success.
  • Nature appreciation: Going for a hike in the woods or mountains, seeing animals in their native habitats or swimming in lakes are just some ways kids can begin to feel connected to and appreciate nature. Being in nature has been shown to lower levels of anger and stress and is associated with positive psychological responses, such as feeling relaxed and present, with sustained attention and interest.

According to Dr. Carter, while it can be challenging for families to make sure their child has opportunities to play outdoors due to various barriers, taking small steps can be the best way to make change.

Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine

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“Some children live in places where outdoor play isn’t safe,” Dr. Carter said. “Families can try to schedule time to travel to places such as local parks or nature preserves to let their kids run, bike and play safely.”

For children who have busy schedules with sports or scheduled activities, Dr. Carter urges families to reconsider.

“Families often have tightly structured schedules based on parental work schedules, school and sports,” Dr. Carter said. “I know it will feel like another thing to schedule, but if a child isn’t getting time to play or spend time with friends outside, consider scheduling some unstructured time for the kids during the week. We often value classes and camps to help teach our kids skills. Play can be a great a teacher, too.”