Independent Outdoor Play Is Critical for Kids—Here's How Parents Can Help

Experts say kids are facing an 'outdoor play deficit.' But making outdoor playtime part of your routine is easier—and more fun—than you or your child may expect.

Kids play with leaves outside

Jakob Lagerstedt / Stocksy

When I found out that I was pregnant with my now 7-year-old daughter, my husband and I were living in a tiny New York City apartment that didn't have an extra bedroom, let alone a backyard (or in our case, even a balcony). When we moved to the suburbs a few months before our daughter was born, I envisioned a life like my own childhood—riding my bike around the neighborhood, creating adventures in my backyard, and groaning when it was time to come inside for dinner.

Today, for my small and modern family, playing outside always sounds like a great idea but becomes a struggle. My husband and I, exhausted from work, simply don't have the energy to put our shoes back on (or in my case, the bra I snapped off immediately upon walking in the door), and my daughter would rather "chill" on her iPad than take a walk to the park.

The irony in wanting my daughter to play outside is that I’m actually terrified of her doing so unsupervised. We live on a busy street, and I would never want a neighbor to think I’m allowing my young daughter to roam around by herself, nary a parent in sight. So, to make sure she is social and has time with other kids outside of school, it’s practically become a part time job setting up regular play dates (all supervised and indoors, of course). When I think back to my own childhood, I don’t remember playdates being so formal. In fact, I barely remember my mom being involved. Outdoor play was spontaneous, fueled by riding my bike around my neighborhood and bumping into other kids who wanted to join me. I know my daughter would be fine, say, using her sidewalk chalk on our driveway while I stayed inside to cook dinner or catch up on work—but the anxiety and the “what will the neighbors think?” always wins out. This becomes even more fraught for kids of color and the systemic issues they face, and for many parents, the fear (or all too real threat) of a call to child services looming.

Whatever the cause, parents are right to be concerned about their kids and outdoor play—or the lack thereof. According to Traci S. Williams, Psy.D., a board-certified psychologist, children today are facing an "outdoor play deficit." They're spending significantly less time outdoors than their parents did, and that means potentially missing out on the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional benefits of playing outdoors.

The physical benefits of outdoor play are vast and important as kids need it to expend energy, for their cardiorespiratory health, sleep quality, and appetite. "Walking, running, jumping, and climbing builds muscles, improves spatial awareness, and strengthens kids' balance and coordination," explains Dr. Williams. "They can get vitamin D from the sun, important for bone health and improving their moods." And eye health is impacted by spending time outdoors because your eyes focus on objects in the distance, reducing eye strain. "Kids who spend just one hour outdoors daily can reduce their risk of developing myopia (nearsightedness) by over 14 percent," says Dr. Williams. For cognitive benefits, Karina Linch, chief product officer at BrainPOP, says "being outside is relaxing and reduces stress. Being in nature can reduce depression, improve your mood, and even help focus."

Linch explains that playing outside empowers children to follow their curiosity and activate observational skills. They may become deeply engrossed in studying ants or curious to see what's underneath a big rock. "When my boys were babies, I brought them outside to explore the grass under their toes, and I would 'talk aloud' about all the things we saw as we played in the park," she says.

The social and emotional value—especially when playing with others outdoors—teaches kids cooperation, communication, following directions, and the art of winning/losing gracefully. Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and author of What to Do When You Feel Like Hitting, believes outdoor playtime is important because it's "open-ended, creative, and stimulates all of a child's senses."

Here are a few easy tips and recommendations for making outdoor play a regular part of your routine—no matter where you live, what your schedule is like, or how much your child resists because screen time is calling.

Making Outdoor Play Fun

If possible, parents should aim to have their children spend at least 30 minutes outside per day—but if that feels tough to squeeze in, Dr. Williams suggests working to make it a part of your day. She ends her own family's busy weekdays with an evening walk or quick bike ride around their neighborhood. "On weekends, I dedicate a few hours each day to outdoor time. We love kid-friendly hikes, followed by lunch, and a much-needed nap," she says. "I also use Google Maps to locate nearby playgrounds to try out, many of which I wouldn't have found otherwise. If I run out of ideas, looking up outdoor play options on Pinterest always comes in handy."

And avoid giving outdoor play a bad reputation by making it part of a punishment. "Don't threaten to send rowdy kids outside," suggests Dr. Williams. Kids respond well to having structure and routine. "Have your kids play outside while you finish cooking dinner or take a walk as a family before tackling homework," she suggests. If you're struggling to squeeze in outdoor play on hectic weekdays, Vien suggests simply shifting your everyday activities outside. "Enjoy outdoor snacks, meals, and even homework sessions, take a quick family walk after dinner or read bedtime stories on the back patio."

Breaking Away from Screen Time

Jeanne Bennett, board chair of the Columbia Play Project, believes it's important to limit screen time and encourage kids to play outside. "Creating an exploratory play space in the back yard or with a few neighbors in a local park is a great way to get kids outside. Include loose parts such as spoons, cups, bowls, measuring cups, cardboard boxes, wood blocks, rakes, and dump trucks in your sand or dirt pile," she explains. "Or, when outside, try providing prompts for experimenting and problem solving such as 'make the tallest tower possible' or 'can you create a slide for your dolls on the dirt mound?'" But most importantly, Bennett says adults need to set a good example. "While the kids are playing, are you scrolling your social media? If so, put that phone away and ask if you can play, too."

Making Outdoor Play Work for "City Kids"

Even if you live in the middle of a bustling city, kids need time outdoors. It may take some more planning, but simple strategies can yield big results. Go on scavenger hunts, or play I Spy on foot as you walk through your neighborhood. "Take your kids to local playgrounds, hiking trails, fishing spots or a picnic at a park. Those are all fun ways to get fresh air," explains Dr. Williams. "In the winter months, kids can help with clearing snow, build snow people, or go sledding."

Bennett also suggested finding the local farmer's market and making an adventure of doing your weekly shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables there instead of the grocery store. "Check out the bus schedule and find the way to the local forest preserve, nature park, or wildlife refuge. Take a picnic and binoculars," she says. "Find the local Children's Museum and be sure you ask about discounts for the entry fee. Same with the local zoo."

Encouraging Independent Outdoor Play

Outdoor play that is unstructured, child-led, and open-ended is particularly important because it helps children learn to regulate their own behavior and emotions, solve problems, and seek out joyful experiences on their own, explains Dr. Goodwin. It also gives your child new settings to explore and problem solve in. "They might encounter rocks to climb, long grass to crawl through, water to splash in, sticks to carry, and more," says Vien. "You can introduce your child to independent outdoor play sessions from the very beginning. Simply bring your baby's play mat or blanket outdoors, remain quiet, and allow your child to observe sights, sounds, and smells." As your child gets older, you can try making yourself busy nearby by bringing your laptop outside to get work done while they play. "Try to observe your child's outdoor play, rather than guiding it."

You can also use your child's current indoor interests and passions as a catalyst to get them outside. "If your child spends lots of time drawing and writing, encourage them to sketch what they notice outdoors: plants, trees, birds, insects and more! If you've got a vehicle lover, allow them to bring a few cars or trucks outdoors," suggests Vien. Have your child create a system of roads or build working tunnels from natural materials. If your child is eager to build with their favorite blocks, invite them to build outside with sticks and stones. "Pose challenges like, 'let's build a house that's just the right size for squirrels!' or if your child is into pretend play, allow them to bring their favorite doll or stuffed animal outside for a shared adventure." If you're stressed about the mess factor, find natural items like pinecones that could serve as a new pretend "friend."

How Outdoor Play Benefits Parents, Too

Spending time outdoors helps parents feel more playful and present. "It allows us to physically step away from laptops and laundry, helping us focus more on our children and less on our to-do lists," explains Vien. "It enhances family connection."

If you need some ideas to get your family outside, here's a list of Dr. William's top recommendations to get you started—and I'll be checking many of these off myself!

  • Gardening
  • Playing tag
  • Trampolines
  • Riding bicycles/tricycles/scooters
  • Climbing trees
  • Drawing with chalk
  • Flying kites
  • Playing soccer, football, volleyball
  • Visiting playgrounds
  • Gathering leaves, twigs, or seeds for art projects
  • Jumping rope
  • Scavenger hunt
  • I Spy
  • Spray painting snow (food coloring & water)
  • Snowball competition
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Finding shapes or animals when cloud gazing
  • Setup a pouring station, water table, or sand tray
  • Water painting old toys in a plastic bin
  • Water painting art on the ground

Explore More

Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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