The benefits of outdoor play for kids are pretty incredible
From promoting curiosity to supporting impulse control, playing outside comes with major rewards.
Do you remember playing outdoors as a kid? It was a time to run around and let loose, use your imagination and explore. Maybe you walked to school, rode your bike to the swim club in the summer or pedaled around the block to visit friends, or maybe you spent long afternoons dreaming up all kinds of imaginative games in the backyard or park near your house.
It’s a rite of passage to while away hours outdoors, but time spent outside in childhood has been decreasing lately, meaning kids have less experience with and connection to nature.
Spending less time outdoors in childhood has been linked not only to decreased appreciation of the environment, but very real health impacts, including lack of physical activity and vitamin D deficiency, diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression in adulthood.1Preuß M, Nieuwenhuijsen M, Marquez S, et al. Low Childhood Nature Exposure is Associated with Worse Mental Health in Adulthood. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(10):1809. Published 2019 May 22. doi:10.3390/ijerph16101809 On the flipside, the benefits of outdoor play for kids can be especially powerful and protective, thanks to the stress-reduction properties a little fresh air confers.
Related: Can we bring back old-school birthday parties, please?
Nature is a stress buffer
Humans have a nature instinct known as biophilia, an innate bond we share with all creatures and plants in the natural world that we subconsciously seek. In fact, a growing number of studies from around the world show that spending time in nature can improve mental health and promotes healing. A breakthrough study found that a healing garden at a children’s hospital in California had positive effects on users —about 85% reported feeling more relaxed, refreshed, or better able to cope after spending only 5 minutes in the garden.2Sherman SA, Varni JW, Ulrich RS, Malcarne VL. Post-occupancy evaluation of healing gardens in a pediatric cancer center. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2005 Oct 15;73(2-3):167-83.
A 2020 study found that spending time in nature also reduced perceived stress in kids, including how often they got angry.3Sobko T, Liang S, Cheng WHG, Tun HM. Impact of outdoor nature-related activities on gut microbiota, fecal serotonin, and perceived stress in preschool children: the Play&Grow randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):21993. Published 2020 Dec 15. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-78642-2
Other researchers have found that outdoor experiences can act protect kids’ mental health both now and into adulthood, which is especially important given the recent rise in rates of anxiety and depression in youth, leading The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to call the situation a national emergency.
11 ways outdoor play benefits kids
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of outdoor play for kids.
- Protects mental health in adulthood
- Increases physical activity
- Promotes curiosity and engaged learning
- Supports impulse control
- Reduces anger and aggression
- Reduces stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Improves focus
- Encourages a love of the environment
- Improves kids’ microbiomes
- Boosts vitamin D levels
- Builds confidence
Related: Ara Katz wants kids to love their microbiomes
Easy ways to help kids spend more time outdoors
- Aim to spend more time outside as a family. Go for a walk, visit a local park, ride bikes, have a picnic lunch or dinner on your porch or in your backyard
- Plan day trips and vacations to nearby state parks or National Parks, botanical gardens or other outdoor experiences
- Register your babies, toddlers or older children for baby nature classes, outdoor sports or summer camps
- Start a nature group at your child’s school
- Get involved in a community garden or local environmental group
- Host a nature scavenger hunt for your neighborhood
- Build seasonal nature sculptures or wreaths together
- Invite friends for a hike or an outdoor playdate, no matter the weather
- Consider enrolling in a forest school or nature-based preschool or kindergarten program
- Have an outdoor storytime
With a bit of planning, it’s easy to add exploratory nature experiences back into our children’s lives. (Just remember to bring the sunscreen!)
A version of this story was originally published on Aug. 1, 2019. It has been updated.
- 1Preuß M, Nieuwenhuijsen M, Marquez S, et al. Low Childhood Nature Exposure is Associated with Worse Mental Health in Adulthood. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(10):1809. Published 2019 May 22. doi:10.3390/ijerph16101809
- 2Sherman SA, Varni JW, Ulrich RS, Malcarne VL. Post-occupancy evaluation of healing gardens in a pediatric cancer center. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2005 Oct 15;73(2-3):167-83.
- 3Sobko T, Liang S, Cheng WHG, Tun HM. Impact of outdoor nature-related activities on gut microbiota, fecal serotonin, and perceived stress in preschool children: the Play&Grow randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):21993. Published 2020 Dec 15. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-78642-2