Send Your Kids Out to Play in the Dark

It's a great way for them to engage in some beneficial 'risky' play.

Sihouette of brother and sister running towards ocean at dusk
Cavan Images / Getty Images

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of playing outside in the dark with friends. There's something about the darkness that's both terrifying and thrilling. You never know what could be lurking just beyond the shadows, but the urge to play is stronger than the fear, and the presence of your friends is empowering. Together you'll be able to overcome whatever might jump out unexpectedly.

My kids feel the same way. They tell me that so many things are better in the dark, that they can run faster, hide better, sneak up more stealthily, spy more effectively. They love using headlamps and flashlights to add to the intrigue of the game. Perhaps they also like being able to stay up later than usual, but somehow sticking to a bedtime matters less when I can hear their laughter and shrieks of glee outside. 

Apparently, outdoor play in the dark boosts their mental health, too. An article in National Geographic, titled "Scary Fun: Why Kids Should Play in the Dark," cites Abigail Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University. Dr. Marsh says that taking risks is a crucial part of childhood development (we're big advocates of "risky play" here at Treehugger), as it prepares children for challenges later in life.

"Playing in the dark is such a good example of something that kids are afraid of. And parents' job is to scaffold those experiences for their children. Help them contextualize it, help them think about the risk, and make it fun. Teach children that they are able to do more than they think they can."

Engaging with a small taste of danger helps to calibrate children's perceptions of what's actually scary and what's not. Psychiatrist Ashley Zucker said, "Overcoming challenges can lead to an increased sense of independence, bravery, and problem-solving ability – which, in a world of chaos, can create a lot of safety and sense of accomplishment for children." 

The nervousness associated with nighttime play has a positive physiological effect. National Geographic writes, "After a welcome fright, cortisol and adrenaline spike, and endorphins and dopamine swirl through circuits in our bodies. All that creates pleasant feelings." In the words of Christopher Bader, a sociology professor at Chapman University, who spoke to NBC News, "Fear responses produce endorphins, which can be a sort of natural high."

Ideas for Outdoor Nighttime Play

What's there to do outside in the dark, you might be wondering? Oh, there's so much to do! Even the most ordinary of activities can become exciting in the dark. Here's a list to get you started – but it's important to mention that children should always be warned to stay away from roads, bodies of water, and other potentially dangerous places if unsupervised by adults.

Hiking: Take flashlights and hit up your favorite trail. It will seem like a totally new place in the dark. Look for the reflection of nocturnal animals' eyes.

Star- or moon-gazing: Pick a clear night, preferably away from urban lights, and take binoculars or a telescope. If there's an astronomical event of some kind, mark it on the calendar to prepare. Spend some time looking at pictures of constellations in advance so there's more to spot.

Group games: Hide-and-seek, red rover, flashlight tag, sardines, red light green light, ghost in the graveyard, manhunt – if you can get together a group of kids, all of these playground classics take on an exciting edge in the dark. You can buy glow-in-the-dark sidewalk chalk to make hopscotch boxes or other drawings.

Sledding: This was my favorite thing to do as a kid in winter, hitting the sledding hill with a toboggan late at night with friends.

Skating: If you're fortunate to live close to a frozen lake, go out for a nighttime skate under the stars. It's only possible for a few weeks out of the year, and the conditions need to be right, but it's an unforgettable experience. 

Campfire: A fire is a bringer of light, of course, but it creates a cozy focal point that makes kids feel comfortable venturing away, as long as they can see the fire and supervising adults and know they can get back to it quickly. 

Boating: There are few things as peaceful as a nighttime canoe, kayak, or rowboat ride on a starry night. It's important, though, to ensure your boat has proper lights on it so others can see you and to wear life jackets. 

Campout: Sleep in your backyard under the stars. Most people do this in the summer, but I've done it in the deep, dark depths of January, on a night that was -13˚F (-25˚C). My friends and I dug a pit, lined it with a tarp and wool blankets, bundled into sleeping bags, covered ourselves with duvets, and went to sleep with hats and mitts on. It was chilly but gorgeous – with no bugs!

Feel free to share any suggestions you may have for nighttime games in the comments below. 

View Article Sources
  1. Abraham, Antony D., et al. "Dopamine and Extinction: A Convergence of Theory with Fear and Reward Circuitry." Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, vol. 108, 2014, pp. 65-77, doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2013.11.007