Making Outdoor Play a Priority
As families make plans for summer, it's worth reflecting on the benefits of playing outside.
"Getting outside to play is good for children's health on so many levels," said Sally Goza, MD, FAAP. "Children play harder outdoors, and so getting them outside can help with motor development and overall physical health. Exploring nature is a way to nurture children's curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, and it can give children a mental health boost, too. We know that spending time outdoors can help children lower their stress and increase their focus."
In addition to the physical health benefits of outdoor play, there are also the positive effects on one's emotional outlook.
The warmer weather and longer days mean more hours for outdoor exploration. And there's nothing like a little time in nature, whether it's the park, the woods, or the backyard, to ignite the senses and spark a child's imagination," said Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa & Doug. "Encouraging a child to climb a tree or follow a firefly may give them just the nudge they need to experience the world in a physical sensory-engaged way."
Playing and being in nature isn't just good for our kids, it's good for us, too. Research has shown nature has physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. It can lower stress levels, improve attention, and put us in a better mood.
So don't just encourage your little one to get outside and play this summer. Enjoy some playtime yourself in the fresh air!
Healthy Outdoor Play Ideas for Different Ages
Babies & Toddlers
Take Storytime Outside
Reading with children is one of the best ways to develop strong emotional bonds and connections that help give your child a sense of safety and security, essential for their growth and development. Grab a blanket and a few books and find a shady spot for outdoor storytime. Ideally, bring along books that are set outside so you can help your child make connections: “Oh, look, a picture of a cloud. Let’s look up in the sky to find a cloud!”
Go on a Guided Tour
Put your baby in a carrier or a stroller and head out for a walk. Pretend you’re a tour guide and try to see your neighborhood through the eyes of someone who has never been there before. Describe out loud all that you see in as much detail as possible: “This is where your big sister skinned her knee learning to ride her bike. That’s the apartment building where our friend lives. I think it was built a long time ago . . .” If your baby is in a stroller, stop and squat down to their level, see what is getting their attention, and talk about it. This kind of running commentary helps kids learn vocabulary and communication skills.
Break Out the Bubbles & Balls
Blow bubbles and challenge kids to chase them and either catch or pop them. Who can make the biggest bubble? Who can make a double bubble? A fun activity for toddlers is to fill a bucket with water and some dish detergent. Give the child a whisk to stir up the bubbles and explore their properties. Ball play is another great way to engage this age child outside. Sit on the grass across from one another and roll a ball back and forth. This not only builds motor planning and balance skills, but also helps teach social turn-taking and watching each other’s body language.
Start a Nature Collection
When outdoors with kids, encourage them to look for wonder in the natural world! Rocks, acorns, leaves, pinecones, seashells, vials of sand from beaches visited — these all make for great collections for kids! And collecting helps build focus, patience, and commitment as kids learn to discern what makes an object worthy to be added to their treasures. Find a place in their bedroom or outside where they can safely keep these items, and return to them again and again.
Go for a Silly Stroll
Take a cue from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks skit and go for a silly stroll. Challenge kids to tiptoe for half a block, turn in circles as they walk, march with high knees, or wiggle their hips and shimmy their shoulders. Then let kids call the shots! It might be fun to trade off being the “leader” with each block!
Take Imagination Outside
The wonders of the outdoors can inspire new ideas. Trees and bushes can become hideouts, rock walls can become mountains for favorite figurines, while flowers can become jungles for toy animals. Let children draw make-believe worlds on the sidewalk in chalk, or creative obstacle courses to run! If your children tell you they don’t know what to play, then think up something you played as a child.
Raise a Yardwork Helper
Many children may groan when asked to help out in the yard, but preschoolers are just the right age to give small, helpful tasks such as watering flowers. Preschoolers love to feel like helpers, and many yardwork tasks provide sensory input that can be calming.
Leave a Trail
Help kids maintain important friendships by coordinating with the parents of your children’s friends to send kids on “secret spy missions.” The way it works is one family goes on a walk with some sidewalk chalk, drawing arrows and letters along the way to spell out a secret message. When that family returns home, they call or text the other family with the coordinates of the starting location for the “mission.” That family follows the arrows and records the letters to spell out the secret message.
- Take a Walk-and-Talk School-age kids may find it easier to share how they are feeling while walking side-by-side with you rather than a face-to-face conversation. A short daily walk can be a great time for an emotional check-in with your child to see how they are handling the “new normal,” whether they have any concerns, and to let them know how you are there to help them through it all. Some children also open up while tossing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball back and forth.
Make a Birdfeeder
Birdfeeders are great ways to attract wildlife to your window or yard, and it can be fun to look up the birds you see, keep a list, and watch what time of the year different species come around.