It’s challenging to get kids to go outside. Between nap times, schoolwork, and of course the love of screen time, playing in nature is often low on the agenda. It becomes even more difficult to encourage as the weather gets colder!
Still, you may already know that outdoor play is extremely important for kids of all ages. But why? What are the benefits? And what’s the best way to get kids outside?
Why is Outdoor Play Important?
Nature supports both mental and physical well-being. Fresh air, beautiful colors, and exciting discoveries stimulate the mind and open the world to new possibilities. In short, outdoor play is a low-stress way for kids to be the best version of themselves. If you need any more convincing, here are a few key reasons to encourage your kids to play outside.
Being outdoors gives children the opportunity to let their minds wander without technology. At first, it might feel like boredom to them and you’ll hear the infamous phrase “there’s nothing to do”. Over time, however, they will use their imaginations. You never know where inspiration will strike- it could be the frog calls echoing from a distant pond, the colors painting the sky, or maybe a sapling growing- something will spark interest in your little one’s mind.
Pro Tip: Creativity needs the space to grow, and the outdoors offers that. Let their imaginations run wild in the backyard, on a playground, or a walking path.
Health is one of the top concerns on all of our minds. For children, starting healthy habits early can prepare them for adulthood. Taking them outside is one of the easiest ways to promote healthy behaviors.
First of all, being outside gets them moving. Keeping the outdoor play unstructured (playground time, hiking, etc.) means they are getting exercise without even thinking about it.
Studies also show that outdoor exposure helps with immunity, sleep, and concentration in children. Recent research even shows evidence that early exposure to friendly microbes outdoors can train our systems and help build resilience to a variety of illnesses.
And, if that wasn’t enough, being outside can aid in their mental health. While outdoors, children have the chance to use their energy in constructive ways, learn how to take on challenges, and lower stress.
Pro Tip: Keep the play unstructured and low-pressure. Telling kids they need to get outside for their health or to take a break from screen time may backfire!
Why does it snow? What made the leaves change colors? Where do the animals go when it’s cold? The outdoor classroom allows kids to explore their curiosity in a natural way.
Similar to creativity, you never know what might catch their attention. Each caterpillar or seed can quickly turn into a teaching moment that leads to even more exploration.
Pro Tip: You can follow this curiosity when you get back indoors by going to a library or googling fun facts online.
How to Set Aside Time for Outdoor Play
This is the tough part. You know nature is good for your kids and you want them to get outside more, but finding the time is difficult. As a parent, there are a million and one things to do during the day. Not to mention, your kids might not be thrilled to leave the house.
With the demands on your own time, it may be hard for you to feel enthused about an outdoor adventure with your kids. If your kids catch on to your hesitation, it will be an uphill battle. This is why keeping the experience positive is important.
Start by identifying something that excites you that you’d like to share with your kids. Maybe it’s a favorite hike, a bike ride, or a picnic- whatever it is, share it with your family!
As mentioned earlier, unstructured play outdoors can be a game changer. It’s refreshing to not have an agenda, trying to get from one activity to the next.
The only rule with freestyling is being outside. The rest is up to you and your children. Encourage them to participate in deciding where to go and what to talk about.
How to Play Outdoors
Though we’ve talked a lot about unstructured play, it never hurts to have an activity in mind. Activities can vary by season. Depending on where you’re located, cold weather can provide opportunities for skiing and sledding. Warm weather may allow for kayaking or snorkeling.
Wherever you are located, getting outside can be just as simple as stepping out your front door. Look for birds or insects, describe the shape of a leaf, or watch the clouds- these are all things that can be found in both urban and rural settings.
No matter the activity, make sure to discuss safety while outdoors. Always dress appropriately for the weather. If it’s cold, the kids should be bundled up and limit exposure to the elements (extreme cold, snow, ice). When it’s warm, stay hydrated with plenty of water on hand, seek shade, and take plenty of rest.
Watch for tripping and falling hazards on both playgrounds and hikes. Make sure the activities you are doing are age appropriate. If your child is heading outdoors unsupervised, review hazards and safety procedures with them. It’s important they know how to respond should an emergency occur.
How to Explore Nature Indoors
Sometimes the weather isn’t quite right for going outside. That doesn’t mean the adventure needs to stop! If you have little ones, this is the perfect time for crafts, science experiments, or research.
Pause the screen time for a bit to ponder on some of the things your family has done outdoors. Let your child decide the activities- maybe they want to write or draw what they experienced or conduct a science experiment to understand a question. This time should be low-pressure and nearly as unstructured as their outdoor playtime is.
To get you started, Pinterest has a large variety of ideas for themed nature activities, many of which we will explore on this blog in the coming months.