The Benefits of Outdoor Play

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By Lizzie Raben, MSW, LSW – June 20, 2024 –

Are children disconnecting from nature? According to The National Recreation and Parks Association, today’s children spend less time outdoors than any other generation.

On average, children spend less than 10 minutes per day outside in unstructured play, compared to seven hours spent indoors in front of an electronic device. That’s around 1,200 hours a year in front of a screen. Multiple studies show that too much screen time leads to several detrimental effects on a child’s physical and mental well-being. Lack of development of fine and gross motor skills, increased risk for obesity, anxiety, depression, and decreased social interaction are just a few of these negative effects.

According to the website, while electronics play a pertinent role in decreased outdoor play, there are other contributing factors, such as concerns about sun exposure, emphasis on scheduled activities and achievements, and lack of safe outdoor play areas.

So why is outdoor play important? The following are reasons children need to play outside:

Physical Health: Immunity and Exercise

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, studies show many children have Vitamin D deficiencies. We need sun exposure to make Vitamin D, an essential vitamin used in many body processes such as bone development and building our immune system. Sun exposure stimulates a part of the brain called the pineal gland, crucial to keeping our immune system strong and improving our mood.

According to Harvard Health Blog, children should be active at least one hour a day. Allowing children to play outside encourages active play, considered the best exercise for children. When children play outside, they have more space for big movements: running, jumping, kicking, and throwing. These physical movements foster physical development.

Mental Health

When children spend time outdoors, they experience reduced levels of stress. Sunlight boosts serotonin levels, which helps regulate our mood and can decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Allowing children to play outside provides them with a natural and therapeutic environment.

Executive Function and Social Skills

Unstructured outdoor play allows children to build executive function skills. These mental skills allow us to negotiate, plan, multitask, troubleshoot, and more – all essential for daily life tasks. Spending time in nature allows children to explore, fostering their creativity and imagination. Children need time alone and with other children to use their imagination to problem-solve, entertain themselves, create their own games, etc.

It’s important that children learn social skills such as how to share, take turns, work together, make friends, and treat other people well. Only interacting in structured settings (like school) does not always allow the child to build these skills. Allowing them to play outside gives them space to practice these life skills.

Need some simple outdoor play ideas for your kiddo? Check out the following articles: