toddler and dog walking through puddle

Benefits of Outdoor Play for Young Children

There are so many benefits of outdoor play for children of all ages. But unfortunately with screens and extra-curricular activities, outdoor play is not as common as it once was.

Long ago kids would spend hours every day playing outside. You know, the generations that used to play in the streets, unsupervised, and hang with the neighbourhood kids until the street lights came on. But as technology started taking over kids are spending less and less time outside.

According to Screen Time vs Green Time: The Health Impacts of too much Screen Time, students in grades 7-12 spend up to seven hours a day looking at screens. The recommended limit is two hours a day. It has been said that children who are exposed to an overexposure to screen time during their early years (0-5) can be habit forming and can increase the likelihood of overuse later in life.

Along with the over use of screens, and lack of outdoor play, children’s health is declining. Children these days have the highest rate of obesity and type 2 diabetes than ever before. Many experts are saying the lack of outdoor play is a major contributing factor.

So how do we prevent overuse of screens and childhood health problems?

Get those children outside. The benefits of being outside hugely outweigh the risks that may come along with the outdoors. Yes, your child has a higher chance of getting a sliver or falling and getting bumps, bruises, and scrapes. However, those are all teachable moments and will actually make your child safer in the end.

According to Dr. Mark Tremblay, a senior scientist at the CHEO (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) Research Institute, children actually face more harm by spending all their time inside.  “Indoors, the dangers come in the form of increased chances of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, lower bone mineral density and mental health issues.”

There is a belief that kids are safer inside but in reality nothing good happens indoors. Along with everything already mentioned children socializing indoors actually have a higher chance of spreading germs and getting sick than socializing outdoors.

What are the Benefits of Outdoor Play in Early Years?

During the first 5 years of life you can spark life-long interests by simply exposing, and allowing children, to explore and experiment with the outdoors.

I, along with many experts, believe that one of the most important interests you can encourage is outdoor play. The benefits of outdoor play are huge and they can last a lifetime. Children playing outdoors can actually benefit nature as well. Those children will grow up and want to protect those natural spaces for themselves and the upcoming generations.

Physical Development

Children are naturally drawn to be active and use their whole bodies when playing outside. So how does outdoor play help their physical development?

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Gross Motor Skills

All the movements that most kids get in trouble for doing inside should be encouraged and praised outside. Things like running, jumping, climbing, balancing, spinning, and any other large body movement.

Fine Motor Skills

Although the outdoors tends to encourage large body movements there are still activities that help develop fine motor skills. Things like drawing with chalk, collecting small rocks or sticks, or carefully picking up a tiny creature. Playing in the sand, water, or mud where they are scooping, pouring, and mixing also works their fine motor skills.

Muscle Strength/ Coordination

As children explore moving their whole body in big ways they improve their muscle strength and coordination. Think balancing across a log, learning to pump on the swing, going up a rock climbing wall, or climbing up a slide.

Better Health/ Lower BMI

When children are able to play outside they burn more calories, which unfortunately we need to be keeping an eye on as the rate of childhood obesity is continuously growing.

According to the CDC, during the 1970’s childhood obesity only affected 5% of children in both Canada and the US. In recent years with a decrease in outdoor play, among other factors like their diet, 13% of Canadian children aged 3-19 were considered obese. In the USA 17.5% of Children, from the same age group, were considered obese.

With these numbers increasing we need to do all that we can to protect our children’s health. We need to lead them to a healthy lifestyle that will continue into adulthood.

Immune System

Spending time playing outdoors also improves children’s immune systems. When children have a chance to play outside, and get dirty, they are exposed to beneficial bacteria and microbes that actually improve their immune systems. It also allows them to escape the indoor germs and bacteria, especially during cold and flu season.

Anne Dodds, Keystone STARS Child Care Health Consultant, states ” Being outside more often also allows your child to develop a stronger autoimmune system and a resistance to allergies. Studies have shown that children in rural areas or those who are active outside have the best overall health.”

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that children (and adults) need for strong and healthy bones. When humans get their vitamin D from the sun it “may last at least twice as long in the blood compared with ingested vitamin D.”

Better Sleep

One of the most common challenges parents struggle with is children’s sleep. The amount of outdoor play children get can play a large part in their sleeping habits. Children tend to fall asleep faster and have a better quality sleep when they have had enough physical activity.

Being outside, with exposure to sunlight, also helps to regulate sleep patterns. In turn it will help with fewer wakings, and for some children sleeping through the whole night. For little ones who cannot walk go for a stroll in the evening. Getting some fresh air before bed can have huge benefits to their sleep.

Social Development

Playing outside can typically put your child in a situation where they will be interacting with other children. Whether it’s when they are in childcare, going to the playground, beach, or spray park. They learn turn taking (waiting for a turn on the slide), communication skills (asking if someone wants to play or if they can have a turn), self-control (resisting the urge to grab a toy from someone else), and following rules of a game (playing tag).

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They learn to problem solve as well as work with and encourage their peers. For example one child may be nervous to go down the big slide, or walk along some logs. Another child who is confident doing those things encourages and demonstrates how it’s done. It is amazing to see how much more willing children are to try new things when their peers are the ones encouraging and helping them along the way rather than an adult.

Emotional Development

Emotional development is the understanding of who they are, what they are feeling, and what others may be feeling. So being outside where children can play in a safe environment and take risks, they learn to recognize their own fears and how to safely face them.

For some children with a fear of heights, this could be as simple as them climbing to the top of the highest slide and going down on their own. Once they have experienced what it feels like to face one of their fears it gives them the confidence to attempt and overcome some of their other fears.

Problem Solving

When given the freedom and space children will learn to problem solve and find solutions to their own problems. For example a child wants to cross a log but it is slippery. They try walking across quickly but they slip. The child may try several times before figuring out how to cross it. They may try going slowly, crawling across, or side stepping. Or they may ask someone to hold their hand.

Gain Independence

Typically when children are taken outside they feel a sense of freedom and are willing to try and do more on their own. As their confidence grows so will their independence. They will be more willing to take a risk, which is a good thing, and to try things they once did not want to try.

Self- Awareness

When children are able to play outdoors it gives them a chance to see the world from a different perspective. They can look down on the world while they are swinging high, or from the top of the climber. They learn about cause and effect when doing things like building their sand castle too close to the waves. Or going down a slide wearing rain pants after it has rained.

Children develop stronger reasoning and observational skills. With the outdoors being a larger space it allows children the space to explore how to confidently maneuver their bodies up, over, under and through various obstacles. They become aware of what they are capable of and when trying new things how to do so safely so they don’t hurt themselves.


Being resilient is a skill that is incredibly beneficial for all humans, big or small. It is what helps us bounce back from stress, failure, various challenges, and even trauma. By allowing children to engage in unstructured outdoor play they will naturally explore trial-and-error within their play. By doing this we can support, and encourage, them to work through their frustrations and “bounce back” if they do not succeed on their first try.

Esben Stærk, of Scietific American, explains “True innovation comes from the iterative process of trying something, understanding why it did or didn’t work, and learning what to do differently or better. This process develops problem-solving, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills that build the resilience kids will need as students and as future employees, inventors and leaders.”

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Using all 5 Senses

When children step outside there is suddenly a whole world of sensory available to them. There are new and different smells compared to inside, with a variety of new sounds. There is a tiny world living on the ground, up in the trees, or in tide pools, with creatures and plants to look at and touch. Whether they are in the city, the country side, or the forest, it’s still different from what they hear, see, smell, and touch indoors. It can be quite simple to provide them with new sensory environments by going to a different place. The things you hear, see, touch, smell, and even taste, will be different if you go to a park in the city versus a forest, or exploring a sandy beach versus a rocky river.

Creativity and Imagination

When children are outdoors with no toys, just the loose parts nature provides, children are left to get creative in what and how they play with them. Very quickly a stick becomes a sword, magic wand, or a shovel. A rock becomes a dinosaur egg, grass and leaves become the main ingredient in the meal they are making, and a log becomes a table, a bed, or a bridge. And one of the best parts of being outdoors with a group of children… there is always a plethora of materials; thus minimizing the fighting between children over the objects.

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Love of Nature – Protecting the Environment

There is something called the Biophilia Hypothesis. Many experts have completed studies and written about it. To sum it up simply it is “the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings.”

So in other words humans are instinctively drawn to nature and all that it entails.

Children are the future and if we want them to live in a clean, healthy world we need to teach them about nature conservation. This does not mean sitting them down and forcing them to learn about nature. It’s as simple as taking them outdoors for a walk, bike ride, or to simply explore and play. Ask them questions about what they see or hear. Make them think about what happens in nature. Some questions you could ask:

  • What animals do you think live in the trees? Ocean? River?
  • Where would they go if we chopped down this whole forest?
  • Why do the animals try and cross busy roads?
  • It’s snowing out, where do the animals go when it snows?
  • Use questions that start with what, where, when, why, and how.

Catherine Broom of the University of British Columbia conducted a study and “found that 87 percent of those surveyed who played outside when they were young still held a love of nature into adulthood. In addition, 84 percent of those young adults said taking care of the natural environment is a priority to them.”

Encourages an Interest in Science

Science is involved in everything around us. Once we are born we become more and more interested in the world. When we become toddlers we are the best scientists that some of us may ever be. There is a natural interest in how the world works. Think of the dreaded “why” stage that all young children go through. Spending time outdoors, during this stage especially, can spark interests and provide knowledge that will last a lifetime.

For example a child sees a spider has caught a fly in its web. They curiously ask what the spider is doing. The adult explains what it is doing and how spiders eat their prey. Some children will be happy with that and move along to something else. Others may continue asking questions and watch as long as they are able to. This one experience could be enough to spark an interest in spiders or bugs in general.

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Helps Children Relate to the Real World

Allowing a child to cautiously investigate a slug in person provides so much more learning than looking at a book about slugs. In person a child is able to touch it (gently) and experience the slimy, stickiness of the slug, and trail that they leave behind them.

They can watch it, to see how it moves and where it may be going. They will ask questions or possibly come up with their own theories as to where it is going or what it’s doing. Children gain a better understanding about their world when they have a chance to observe, explore, predict, experiment and learn in the moment.

What About Kids Getting hurt when they are Playing Outside?

As helicopter parenting is becoming more of a “thing”, children’s risk taking is getting squashed as the parents are worried the child may get hurt. Yes, it is true that children have a greater chance of hurting themselves while playing outside. BUT, it is not to the degree that we should not be taking them outdoors to play.

A child that never trips and scrapes their knees or falls down off their bike is a child that is too overprotected. How will children learn to be more careful if they have never gotten hurt? Although it can sound backwards, the more freedom children have to explore and take risks, the safer they actually become. Learn about the Benefits of Risky Play and learn to take a step back.

How Do You Promote Outdoor Play?

Make it fun – Come up with a game to play. Get them excited for the outing. If you are going for a walk think of things you would see and ask your children to find them along your walk. For example “find 5 black squirrels and 3 different kinds of birds” or “find and collect a pine cone, a maple leaf, a stick bigger than your arm, and a dandelion.”

Incorporate nature into their play/ interests – If your child enjoys arts and crafts make a plan to go outside to collect things for an art project. Get leaves for crayon leaf rubbings. Make pinecone bird feeders. Try out a variety of objects in replacement of a paint brush. Or better yet, take the art outside. Make a chalk paint and paint the driveway or sidewalk.

Go to new places – Mix it up, don’t always go to the same places. Children get bored. The best way to keep them interested is to change it up and explore different places. Check out various parks, beaches, forests, or rivers.

Invite other friends to meet you – If your child tends to get bored quickly bring some friends along, or ask them to meet you at a specific location. Outings are always more fun with friends.

Start a garden – If you have the space, work with your child(ren) and try growing some stuff. If you do not have any gardening skills start simple. Learn along side your child. The soil is filled with beneficial bacteria and microbes. It has been shown that gardening also helps to reduce stress.

Have the right kind of clothing – As the saying goes “there is never bad weather, only bad clothing.” This is so true, to a degree; obviously a hurricane or major hail storm isn’t the right weather to be outside in. But when you’ve got full rain gear and enough layers both the child and adult can have a great time outdoors.

Go on a regular basis – The more often you go play outdoors the more you and your children will enjoy, and benefit from it.

We Need to Get Children Outdoors

Along with all the benefits of outdoor play mentioned above, a Norwegian study has shown that when children are able to spend large amounts of time outdoors, during their early years, it is linked to supporting their cognitive and behavioural development. It also showed that children aged 4-7 were less likely to show signs of hyperactivity and inattention.

Outdoor play, during the first five years, is also associated with increasing their executive functioning skills that are incredibly beneficial for when children are in preschool, elementary, high school, and beyond. Executive functioning skills “are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

As you can see, by playing outdoors children can gain the skills to benefit them for the rest of their lives. We owe it to our children to get them outdoors. The fresh air will also benefit you.

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