Kids need to play together outside—here's how to do it safely

Here's why outdoor play, and lots of it, should be at the top of your to-do list, especially now.

safe outdoor playdate during the pandemic

As parents and caregivers, we've been on an emotional rollercoaster for months in the COVID-19 pandemic. So much is uncertain, kids can seem like they are regressing, and our one job—keeping them safe and happy—feels more challenging than ever.

One thing we're hearing over and over from our kids is: We miss playing with our friends outside.

Opportunities to come together and play are so needed, and we can see it and feel it in our kids. Going outside—in a safe and thoughtful way—is the best way to make that happen, and public health experts agree.

Time spent outdoors offers mental and physical benefits, and Americans aren't getting enough of it, these days especially. The New York Times recently cited concerns about "nature deficit disorder," a fear many experts have for kids who've been cooped up since March. It's a non-medical term for behavioral problems that may stem from too much time indoors—and not enough free play in nature. Add in our basic need to socialize, and getting together outdoors is a mental health combo we all need right now.

And though access to outdoor space varies from family to family, from private yards to patches of grass to city sidewalks and common courtyards, finding a way to get a dose of nature no matter where you live is game changing for everyone. Here's why outdoor play, and lots of it, should be at the top of your to-do list, especially now.

The outdoors are safer

Experts say that when we're together, it's much safer to be outside than in. And with proper safety protocols, kids and families can and should enjoy lots and lots of nature time this summer.

The New York Times cited a study from Japan of 100 cases, which found that coronavirus was 20 times more likely to transmit indoors than out, because of the dispersion of viral droplets. Breathing together in confined spaces carries tons of risk; outdoors that risk is much, much lower—and drops to negligible when you wear masks and maintain social distance.

For example, William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said in a recent interview that "the risk out of doors is lower than it is when we're in enclosed spaces." And Dr. Erin Bromage, a biology professor and immunology expert at UMass Dartmouth recently recommended families enjoy "any outdoor space with ample room for social distancing," including parks, beaches and trails.

Julia L. Marcus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, recently shared similar thoughts in an interview: "I think going outside is important for health," she said. "We know that being outdoors is lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors. On a sunny, beautiful weekend, I think going outside is indicated, but I also think there are things to do to reduce our risk."

The benefits outweigh the risks for kids

"People are thinking about these non-quantified risks and benefits," Dr. Amber Fyfe-Johnson, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Washington State University, told Tinkergarten. "We want a number, but we don't have it. The numbers do suggest that between-child transmission of COVID is very low—it's still a risk—but people in the public health realm are saying it's important to get kids outside."

With the right approach, we can manage the risk

In another interview, Bromage stressed that "it's the types of interactions" we have outside that matter. Common-sense guidelines apply: Keep 6 feet of distance if you can, wear masks (if you're over 2) and don't share food or utensils with people outside your immediate family.

Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has also encouraged parents to get kids together with friends outside this summer and, to keep it safe, wear masks, keep distance and wash hands frequently.

How do we put these precautions in place?

One key is to avoid big crowds and do your best to maintain social distancing protocols, especially those that have been mandated where you live. To teach little kids social distancing, we can do things like help kids envision a 6-foot personal space bubble and remind children of the reason that we are keeping our distance: We want to keep ourselves and our friends safe. Older kids can get that message in even greater detail: Keeping a 6-foot bubble makes it much less likely for the virus to spread.

Children are wired to physically connect, but with practice and time, their impulse control can catch up and they can learn to interact—and enjoy it—from a safe distance. Tinkergarten, the outdoor early education provider I founded in 2015, is kicking off in-person classes where they're allowed, based on established safety guidelines. We'll partner with families to put protocols in place—like social distancing, teaching kids to respect a personal space bubble in fun, kid-friendly and supportive ways (like walking like a lobster when they need to make more room) and masks for everyone over age 2 as recommended by the CDC.

While the outdoors are safer in terms of lower potential for viral transmission, it's important to acknowledge that we don't all enjoy equal access. Historically, parks and green spaces haven't been a place where people of all races have been made to feel at ease or even safe—and that history still negatively impacts how some people experience that natural world. There's a lot we can all do to help make the outdoors more accessible to everyone. Organizations like In Solidarity, Outdoor Afro, Diversify the Outdoors and Soul Trak are working to right the imbalance.

Though COVID has made it all the more apparent, the outdoors offer an ideal environment for children to play and learn. With schools' strategies shifting and parents trying to juggle working with childcare in quarantine, it's a relief to know that when kids play outside, they're naturally learning and developing important skills, from sensory engagement to empathy.

This post was originally published on Tinkergarten.

Founder, Tinkergarten

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.


Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!


Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.


Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.


Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.


Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.


Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.


Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.


Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.


Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.


Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.


Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.


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