Why Kids Need Outdoor Play

It helps them to thrive physically, emotionally, and academically.

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digging in the dirt
The author's children spend hours digging holes in the yard.

K Martinko

When my children have not played outside enough, I can tell. Their energy levels ratchet up, the noise increases in the house, and they squabble incessantly. I can feel my own mood shift. I start snapping at them to be quiet, to calm down, to please move out of the kitchen where they tend to congregate. 

So I tell them it's time to go outside. Usually they complain and try to come up with reasons for why staying in is better, but I insist. Within minutes they're out and running around, and an immediate sense of calm descends on the house. Sometimes I give them a minimum time limit, say 20 minutes, before they're allowed to come back inside, but often they forget about it once they're wrapped up in a game.

Kids need consistent daily outdoor play. Indoor activities are not a replacement for outdoor ones, which is why it's up to parents to insist that children get their daily dose of fresh air. There are numerous benefits to be had, some of which I'd like to share.

Physical Benefits

Outdoor play gives children exercise outside of a structured group-sport environment. Give a kid a bike, a scooter, a pogo stick, a skateboard, and their heart rate will be racing in no time as they practice (and take pride in) new skills. Outdoor play builds core strength. Active kids haul sticks and logs, move rocks, lug buckets of water, and shovel dirt while building forts, designing ramps, and digging holes. 

Pediatric physiotherapist Devon Karchut explains how big movements, like rolling, spinning, and jumping, stimulate a child's vestibular system. "This sensory system is the 'air traffic controller' or organizer for all of the other senses and influences things like attention, regulation, balance, spatial awareness, and coordination of the eye muscles." Children need to stimulate this system on a regular basis, and outdoor play allows this to happen more naturally. 

Mental Benefits

Outdoor play gives children a rare chance to be in a space without fixed rules. There are fewer requirements to calm down, to be quiet, to stay clean. Outside, they're free to do anything that entertains them (within reason). They're allowed to operate apart from parental or teacher oversight, which is more conducive to imaginative play and getting into a creative flow state. Instead of hearing "don't do that" all the time, the outdoors is a place where "let's do it!" takes precedence. This is empowering.

Children learn how to assess risk on their own when playing unsupervised outside. With no hovering adults to say what's safe and what's not, they try things that push their limits, but are more inclined to listen to their bodies because they know they're responsible for themselves. This can help set them up for longer-term success.

Educational Benefits

There's so much active learning that goes on outdoors. The outdoors is like one giant sensory bin, just waiting to get unpacked. When kids are out of the house, they take the discrete facts and information they've heard in the classroom and apply it to real life, e.g. experimenting with pulleys to haul stuff into a treehouse, building a bridge across a deep hole that will support their weight, getting the right consistency of mud by mixing dirt and water, seeing how sand adds traction to an icy walkway and a sprinkling of ice melts it, how to dig a tunnel in a snowbank without it collapsing. They'll do better in school, too, after spending more time outside.

ice fort
Lilian Henglein / Getty Images

Playing outside connects children to the seasons. They become aware of the changing weather and how it affects animals, plants, and soil around them. They can watch animals foraging and hoarding food in the fall, buds appearing on trees, birds building nests, raising babies, and migrating. Time spent outdoors puts children at ease with the seasons, teaching them how to dress appropriately and not to fear non-sunny weather. This in turn will make them more finely tuned to changes in the weather, and hopefully more concerned about climate change as they grow because they know what they want to protect.

Outdoor play makes children happy. You'll see it when they come inside, tired and satisfied, cheeks and eyes glowing. And you, as a parent, will feel happier, too, because you've had a brief respite from the noise and the chaos. So make this a priority by designating time each day for children to play outdoors. 

Take them to parks and forests on weekends or after school if you can. You don't have to play with them; I often sit with a book, a coffee, or a friend, observing from afar and enjoying the break while they lead their own explorations. Spend some money on making your yard more interesting for them. Instead of buying technology and other toys for indoor enjoyment, buy a basketball net, a scooter, a shovel, materials to build forts and ramps and a mud kitchen. Your kids will get hours of enjoyment out of these things, and the benefits are far-reaching.