Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Encouraging Kids to Play Outside

It can be hard to get kids excited to play outside, especially with all the fun toys and screens we have indoors for them to play with. Previous generations spent their playtime almost exclusively outdoors, but that has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, only 1 in 4 kids plays outside on a daily basis, compared to 3 in 4 children one generation ago1. There are significant benefits to playing outside, so encouraging your kids to get outdoors can be a great way to support their development!

Children who play outside frequently:

  • Have better opportunities to develop gross motor skills like running, kicking, throwing, and catching
  • Are more likely to get adequate physical activity, promoting muscle, bone, joint, and heart health
  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are less likely to be deficient in Vitamin D, a nutrient that is important to bone and heart health
  • Are better able to pay attention at school and behave better at school
  • Have better self-regulation skills, which leads to better academic achievement
  • Communicate better with peers when playing outside than when playing inside
  • Show less aggression 
  • Are more symbolic and creative in their play

If your children aren’t used to playing outside a lot they may struggle to find things to do in the backyard and get bored easily. Here are some ideas for encouraging outdoor play and teaching kids how to play independently outside.

Start when they’re little. When you have infants and toddlers, bring them outside with you while you do yard work, read a book, or talk on the phone. If they start by just lying next to you on a blanket in the backyard, then slowly begin to explore, they will grow into children who are comfortable outside because they know you’re close. You can adapt indoor activities for your younger children to work well outside, too.

Play games outside as a family. Take the time to play with the whole family outside. Try simple games adapted to your children’s ages like ring-around-the-rosie, duck duck goose, red light green light, tag, or just kick a ball back and forth. Not only will this give your kids good memories of being outside and strengthen family relationships, but it will teach them games that they can play with their friends and foster a desire to play outside.

Make materials for imaginative play available. If you want your kids to play pretend outside, they need objects that can be used for pretend play. Sticks, rocks, leaves, pine cones, old blankets or towels, cardboard boxes, sidewalk chalk, and other household items will transform into swords, forts, and make-believe houses in your children’s imaginations.

Let them get dirty! I have fun memories of my siblings and I playing with grass clippings every time my dad mowed the lawn. We loved pretending we were birds and making nests out of the cut grass. Did we make a big mess? Yes. But were we entertaining ourselves and making memories? Definitely! I’m glad my parents were willing to let us make messes while we played outside, because those are some of my favorite memories. Mud, grass, dirt, leaves, and water can always be cleaned up, so it’s worth it to let your kids have fun outside if they’re being safe and enjoying what they’re doing.

Give them outdoor toys as well as indoor toys.
When you’re thinking of gift ideas for birthdays or holidays, don’t overlook outdoor toys! Things like bikes and scooters (you can probably find these secondhand), a sandbox, balls, kites, bubbles, water guns, frisbees, or a beanbag toss are great ideas. The possibilities are endless, and having fun things like these around will encourage outdoor play.

Spend time outside yourself. Children pick up on the behavior you model for them. If you want your kids to enjoy the outdoors, find ways to get outside more often yourself. Walk somewhere close to your home rather than driving, plan a hike one weekend, read a book in the backyard, or have a picnic for family dinner one night.

Try a few of these ideas if you feel like your children might benefit from more time outside. Not only is playing outside good for their development, it’s lots of fun, too! This article has some good information about outdoor play as well.

1. Kemple, K. M., Oh, J., Kenney, E., & Smith-Bonahue, T. (2016). The Power of Outdoor Play and Play in Natural Environments. Childhood Education, 92(6), 446-454. doi:10.1080/00094056.2016.1251793

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