It’s a tragic fact that kids these days spend less time playing outside than ever. The causes can be because of less access to parks and nature reserves, or because they are constantly in classes, extracurricular activities, and sports. Regardless, children are missing out on one of the most crucial parts of growing up and developing as both a mind and a body.
Playing outside has been shown to provide a range of health benefits to children, as well as cognitive benefits. To allow children to miss out on these experiences is just as disastrous as denying it to them.
It’s vital that we give children ample opportunities to explore this world around them, to have meaningful experiences in nature, and to play in groups in wide open spaces with plenty of room to run and play. Outside play helps children to stretch their bodies and minds and ultimately makes for more well-adjusted adults farther down the line.
Benefits of Playing Outside
There is a range of benefits for children who spend time outside. These effects can help children with their social skills, their performance in school and sports, and their general cognitive development.
When children play together outside, they play without structure. Compared to their usual games and activities in school, outside play is a world without limits, where children have to come up with their own rules. This forces children to learn problem-solving skills that greatly benefit their social development.
They learn how to work together, how to create structure themselves, and how to deal with conflict without an authority to mediate. Even something as simple as deciding who gets to slide down the slide set first proves a perfect opportunity for children to learn conflict resolution skills and effective communication techniques.
Outside play encourages physical activity a great deal more than inside play. Running from place to place, playing physical games like tennis and football, and even just taking a hike with friends all provide great exercise for children. Children who exercise regularly report lower stress levels, improved health, and greater fitness.Most school-age children require a minimum of at least 1 hour or more of physical activity each day to maintain their physical and mental health. Sure, you could force your children to hit the gym with you, but an hour of unstructured outside play will prove just as effective and much more fun for your kids. Many children, and adults alike find benefits in investing in a garden trampoline. By developing their strength, endurance, and flexibility at an early age, you’re preparing them for success in sports and school later on.
Most children in the United States today suffer some level of Vitamin D deficiency. The main source of Vitamin D for humans is sunlight. This vitamin is responsible for the development of strong bones, decreasing the risk of diabetes, and inhibiting the growth of cancer later in life. Insufficient levels of Vitamin D have actually been shown to increase the risk of osteoporosis, and can even lead to mood disorders like depression or schizophrenia, even in children.With all of their time spent in the classroom at school, and rising levels of time spent indoors on their free time, kids simply aren’t getting enough time out in the sun. For those who live far from the equator, or who live in other areas that don’t get as much sun, supplements can make up for the lack of natural exposure to the vitamin. However, the cheapest and most effective source of vitamin D is still natural sunlight, and playing games in the garden is one of the best way to encourage children to spend more time out in the sun.
Increased Attention Span
With rising levels of ADD and ADHD across the United States, many parents are worried about how to reduce the risk or treat the symptoms. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve children’s attention spans and reduce ADHD symptoms.Even just being exposed to natural settings after school each day and on weekends can result in massive improvements in attention span, focus, and overall wellness. Spending regular time in wide open green spaces has even been shown to have an effect comparable to the effects of Ritalin.
There have been multiple studies that link exposure to natural environments with improved performance in the categories of attention, memory, and cognitive ability. These benefits arise from being exposed to nature in any form, ranging from nature reserves to indoor plants. Even a simple nature photograph can improve brain function.
In a world where parents are constantly looking for ways to help their children get ahead in school, and later in the workplace, spending time in nature proves to be one of the best cognitive enhancers available.
How to Encourage Your Kids to Play Outside
With all these benefits in mind, as well as the increasing amount of time children spend sitting inside, it’s more important than ever for adults to actively encourage children to engage in outdoor play. But when you try to push your kids to go outside, often they will resist. It’s difficult to inspire your kids to even walk outside, let alone stay out for hours at a time.
What Keeps Kids Inside?
The main barrier to getting your kids playing in the sun is the pull of other indoor distractions. Spending all day inside, even if that time is spent rather actively, can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and attention-deficit disorders. So what activities are keeping kids inside?
- Digital MediaDigital media and electronic devices are by far the biggest distraction keeping kids inside. Most children spend twice the time playing on a screen as they do inside. This type of play, although very appealing to children, leads to sedentary habits, laziness, and slower cognitive development. Video games, youtube videos, television, and movies all keep kids sitting still and passive, rather than actively engaging with their environment.
- Lack of Access to NatureMany children live in homes that have no local access to nature. A study in the UK showed that one in nine children had not stepped foot in a park, forest, beach or natural environment for at least a year. For some of these children, it’s impossible to reach a natural setting without a parent to drive them. This lack of access to natural environments denies children the opportunity to spend time playing in nature, exploring, and reaping the cognitive and physiological benefits of outdoor play.
- Parental FearsMany children are actually denied opportunities to play outside by their parents themselves. These overprotective parents allow their worries to prevent them from sending their kids out to play. Whether it’s fear of injury, illness, or abduction, these parents would rather keep their children safe inside than expose them to the risks of the outside world.This attitude is understandable, and the plethora of “true crime” tv shows and media representations of kidnappings certainly exacerbate these fears. However, statistics show that crime is overwhelmingly on the decline. Kids are safer than ever, yet parents continue to grow more worried.
- Lack of Role ModelsChildren primarily learn how to behave by observing how their role models behave. The most powerful role models, of course, are the parents or guardians. Children aren’t the only population spending less time inside, adults tend to spend even less time in nature than children do. Parents who spend all of their free time indoors are setting an example that their children are certain to follow.If you can gather the energy to take your child to the park with you, especially if you can do it regularly starting from a young age, your child will begin to learn from your example. The more excited you are about spending time in nature, the more excited your child will be.
How Can You Keep Your Kids Playing Outside
So now that we’ve looked at the benefits of outside play and examined the barriers preventing children from taking advantage of nature, let’s talk about the things you can do to make sure your kids have ample opportunity to play outside.
- Set an ExampleThe best thing you can do is to spend time in nature yourself, with and without your children. If your kids learn that you like spending time in nature, it’s much more likely that they will grow up to value nature in the same way that you do. Plus, you can reap all of the health benefits of outside play as well!
- Make it AccessibleWhen you’re looking for a home, make sure that there are ample opportunities around for your children to play in nature. Big gardens are also a plus. Having public parks, nature reserves, and hiking trails within walking distance of your home will make it easier for your children to access nature themselves, rather than feeling like those settings are out of reach.
- Limit Their Screen TimeChildren should be spending a minimum of an hour outside every day. If their devices are preventing them from reaching this minimum, it’s time to restrict their usage. Children should be limited to only 3 hours of screen time a day in order to keep them active and growing.
- Encourage Them to Play With Friends
Everything is better with friends, and outdoor play is no exception. If your child is playing outside with friends, it’s more likely that they will stay out longer and be more active. Plus, the benefits of social development will help them in their school and adult lives.
It’s always a great idea to get outside. The benefits for you and your children are far-reaching and powerful. Even though children have more distractions inside than ever, it only makes it more important to actively encourage outside play in unstructured environments. If your child can play outside, even for only an hour a day, they will feel better physically and mentally, and it will help their development immensely.