How to Increase Your Kids' Outdoor Time

The key is to start thinking of it as a necessity. (Because it is.)

skating on Lake Huron

Katherine Martinko

The benefits of outdoor play are, by now, fairly well-understood by parents and educators. We know that it's pretty much the best thing you can do for kids' physical and mental well-being; that vigorous, prolonged, and consistent outdoor playtime promotes development and boosts health; and that it makes children happier and easier to manage when they come back inside.

Despite knowing this, it continues to be a struggle for many parents, teachers, and families to find time to fit outdoor playtime into their days. There's never a convenient time, or other extracurricular activities take priority when a choice must be made. Kids suffer as a result, deprived of this crucial component of childhood.

As a mother to three energetic children who spend considerable amounts of time outdoors, I have figured out some good ways to maximize outdoor playtime, and I'd like to share some of my advice with readers who might be struggling with this. 

Start thinking of it as a necessity. If you start viewing daily outdoor play as being as important as a meal or a good night's sleep, you'll start to find more time for it. Think of it as nonnegotiable; no "extra" things should happen until outdoor playtime has been checked off the list.

Replace organized activities with unorganized ones. Instead of packing your after-school calendar with sports and play dates, cancel those for at least several days a week and tell your kids they need to play outside instead. Make it a rule. Set a timer.

Every little bit counts. If you only have a few minutes, take advantage of that. Send kids outside for five or ten minutes to blow off steam, run around the block, wrestle in the snow, or dig a hole. It doesn't take much to make a big difference. 

Mandate outdoor family time on weekends. My family goes cross-country skiing every single Saturday morning in the winter. The time is blocked off and we never skip it, even when the temperature drops to -20C (-4F), like it did last weekend. This time is fiercely protected because of the benefits it has for all of us—exercise, fresh air, tremendous satisfaction, and family bonding.

family goes cross-country skiing on snowy day

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Organize a play date. Tell the other parent that you'd like the kids to play outside and that the friend should be dressed appropriately. I've found that other parents are often hugely appreciative of this, as they want their kid outside, too.

Don't be afraid of darkness. At this time of year, it's dark in the mornings and early evenings, but that shouldn't stop you from sending kids out to play in a safe yard where they're not at risk from cars. (My kids love hide-and-seek in the dark, especially when we have friends over for dinner.) Do a quick before-school or after-dinner play, or take them for a nightly pre-bedtime walk if you're in a busy urban setting.

Older kids can get an part-time job that gets them outside. Our elderly neighbor asked if she could hire my kids to walk her dog every day, so they do. Now a second neighbor has asked to add her dog, too. It's a great way to get them outside each day, no matter the weather—and they love making money. Other ideas could be a paper route, shoveling snow, or assisting another senior neighbor in some capacity.

boy walks his pet pug

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Walk to and from school. The more outdoor time that can be worked into a kid's day, the better they'll feel and do. Train your kids from a young age to learn the best and safest route by accompanying them, then let them do it solo when they feel ready (and you agree that they are).

Play outside before school. If you must drive, send your kids outside ten or fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. It'll give them a chance to burn off energy, and you'll have a few precious minutes to get organized before leaving for drop-off. 

Look into attending a forest school. We've been doing this for five months now, and it's the best money I've ever spent. One day a week, all of my children skip regular school to spend a day at a certified forest school held in a nearby provincial park. It's their favorite day of the week, and I've noticed it's made them far more comfortable and willing to play outside overall.

Spend time with your kids outdoors. If you go outside, younger ones in particular will want to be there, too. Make it fun by lighting a campfire in the backyard or setting up a camp stove to make hot chocolate or hot apple cider. Have a picnic. Work in a garden together. You can even just sit and read a book while your kids buzz around nearby; you can be present without being engaged. 

Take advantage of urban parks. These are a rich resource in cities that are often under-appreciated and underutilized. Make it a ritual to go there with your kid on a set day each week, tailoring your activities to the season and climate. Make it something you both look forward to.

kids hanging out in the snow

Katherine Martinko

Invest in making your yard more appealing, if you have one. I've spent money on a basketball net, a trampoline (used), a big mud pit for digging, a treehouse, bicycles, scooters, remote control toys, and, more recently, an electric hoverboard for my oldest kid—all things that make them want to go outside and play. This is money well-spent (and money that I do not spend on electronics). Speaking of which...

Ditch the electronics. Yes, I know everyone rolls their eyes and thinks, "That's impossible," but have you ever thought of actually doing it? We are a mostly screen-free family (no iPads, no TV, kids don't have phones) and it's a blast. It's not nearly as extreme as you may think; what's extreme is how much time everyone else spends staring at their devices when they could be outside building fabulous snow forts or building skateboard jumps in the driveway.

If you put the effort in to create time for outdoor play, you'll reap the benefits in more ways than you can possibly imagine at this point. It's worth it, I promise.