Benefits of Outdoor Play

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“IT TAKES TIME—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way.” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods

Risk and Reward

Parents naturally want to keep their children safe, but play that involves a little risk is good for them! By doing new activities, children learn the outcome of new actions. Playing outdoors brings a certain risk factor that they can’t get as easily indoors. They can test the environment, learn their comfort levels, and learn to assess the amount of risk that various activities (or even creatures) have. Kids will learn the responsibility that comes with the freedom of exploration with risky play.

Risky play doesn't mean letting your child teach themselves how to swim independently, it means encouraging them to learn, even when it can be scary. So many doors open when the child achieves this goal of learning something that was 'scary'. They'll initially feel pride and confidence, but then they'll also find all the new things they can do to scaffold on their newfound skill.

Being in a challenging environment also helps children develop mentally and physically. Playing in nature has been academically connected with increased performance in general cognitive function, self-control, mental well-being, and imaginative play1. When it comes to a child’s body, the variety in an outdoor environment can help create good posture, increased stamina, better core strength, a decrease in myopia, and more2

Outdoor play can also improve a child’s immune system! Research done by Jack Gilbert, author and scientist who studies microbial ecosystems at the University of Chicago, found that children who play regularly in natural environments not only have more advanced motor skills, but also a stronger immune system. Gilbert found that each time children are exposed to germs, like the ones you’d find outdoors, their immune system goes to work and prepares your children for a healthy life3.

The Water-Flow Wall built by Clark
The Water-Flow Wall built by Clark

Challenges of Outdoor Play

The changes in weather gives opportunities for a variety of outdoor play activities. However, getting out of the comfort of your home can sometimes be easier said than done! We asked our Instagram followers what their concerns were with playing outdoors with their children. Through a poll we discovered that 63% of the respondents found the weather to be the bigger challenge, while 37% said that it was the planning involved*. With the weather being the bigger challenge, we wanted to seek out ideas of how to tackle the difficulties that weather can bring.

There is an old Scandinavian saying that goes "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

By making sure your child is dressed and prepared appropriately for the weather, you are setting them up for success. There are also things to consider like hydration breaks, sunscreen, snacks, shade and more than can make outdoor play more comfortable.

Taking advantage of various types of weather

You may worry that when it is rainy that your child will play in the mud and get dirty. You are probably right! One of the best ways for your children to understand the world is by experiencing it. When they jump in a puddle, they understand what happens to big or small amounts of water and learn about water moving. It also helps develop those important motor skills. 

Winter Play 


During the cooler months, it is common for children to be restricted to indoor play at home as parents think children won't enjoy being outside in the cold, or that they will get sick from being in the colder air. This is something that I, personally, have struggled with in the cold Utah winters! I have felt tired even thinking of the preparation to play in the snow, but in the long run, it has always been worth it. My kids thrive when they can exhaust themselves the way that kids do while playing outside. I try to bring snacks, extra socks, and lots of flexibility as we explore the winter weather.

Children can continue their physical development through this season as they learn to navigate new terrain. Snow is wet, ice is slippery, snowflakes are delicate, your breath is visible, and there is a new perspective on the things surrounding you. There really are so many things about the winter that can be fun and new for children! It can help to see things from their fresh eyes to see the beauty in these new experiences. By being prepared with coats, gloves, boots, hats, lots of layers, and by using your best judgment, your child can not only tolerate but ENJOY the excitement of winter weather, as I have seen with my children.

Outdoor Play Ideas for Toddlers

Heat: An opportunity to experiment with water play activities. Plant a garden. Observe bugs and birds. (Just schedule frequent water breaks).

Rain: Great time to experiment with water flow or the texture of mud. Puddle play – splashing, floating, comparing reflections. Playing in the rain can be great fun for little ones.

Snow: shovel snow or express creativity- through building, shaping, throwing, melting, etc with snow. Learn about the different types of snow and do experiments. Great physical exercise to play in winter.

Wind: experiment with the wind- fly kites, bring ribbons or wind catchers to show the invisible force of wind. Make or get a wind chime. These can all be great wind activities for preschoolers.

When dressed and prepared appropriately, there can be joy and exploration, no matter the weather. This allows children to have a special relationship with nature. By being prepared, you can celebrate the changes and the new activities that each season brings rather than dread the challenging aspects of the weather.

Girl in a raincoat outside
@bringingupbabe on Instagram

Community Feedback

We also asked our Instagram community the biggest or most common challenge they've experienced when trying to get kids outside to play and invited solutions for those specific problems.

Sunscreen

Some shared the annoyance of sunscreen and how their child didn’t like putting it on. Children’s discomfort with applying sunscreen is understandable! The solution from the community came in a hack that uses a makeup brush or beauty blender to ease the discomfort of putting sunscreen on your child’s face.

Bugs

Others expressed the difficulty of bugs- from ticks or a child’s fear of cicadas or bees. Beyond teaching kids about bugs, a suggestion was to plant lemongrass or citronella in your yard, which are natural bug repellant plants. When you’re at the park, avoid tall grass and use a repellent with DEET, permethrin or picaridin to keep ticks away! @radaamanda suggested to “maybe get some picture books from the library about [bees] and talk about how cool they are, so much so that she starts to be so curious about them!"

Coming back inside

Many people shared that the biggest challenge is getting their child to go back inside! If you apply sunscreen, hydrate regularly and don’t have time constraints, the outdoors is a great place to be. If you’re needing to go back inside by a certain time, suggestions were to give your child a heads up to let them know that in 10 mins, then 5 mins, then 2 minutes, it will be time to go back inside.

Expectations

When it came to the expectations we set for ourselves with outdoor play, @hikingwithharps said, “The biggest challenge at first was the expectation that going outside had to be some grand adventure. When honestly 15 minutes in our driveway observing and playing with chalk was all we needed some days. Once I got rid of that expectation then I became more comfortable with what our outside time meant.”

Packing Ahead

One of the best things to do is to have a bag prepared and ready to go for outdoor play. Here are some things people said about packing ahead:

@magda.pinnetti said “I have all the essentials already together in a bag! Every day we go out for an adventure”

@avillarreal1l said “Pack some water, snacks, sunscreen and let’s gooo. Don’t over think. Just get outside.”

@heather.natalie said “Have a backpack or tote bag pre-packed with hats/bug spray/ snacks/ adventure items”

@yumyyumyeon said “Our car always has: bubbles, bike, scooter, helmet, potty. Take lots of snacks”

@raisinglittlegoose said “Have a separate outside go bag. Snacks, wipes, change of clothes, spf, then just grab and go!”

Other Tips

@dandelionkaty said “Don’t overthink it! Small neighborhood parks are great, it doesn’t have to be a huge adventure”

@hopealexisk said “Make your backyard your #1 favorite outdoor hangout”

@hellokt87 said “All the clothes! Rain gear, snow gear, every kind of hat!”

@fiso0918 said “I usually go out in the morning before the sun gets too strong”

@carrie.close said “Just go outside! It doesn’t have to be complicated, and babies are so much happier in nature”

@nicki_nac said “If a kiddie pool is daunting, try a splash pad! No bathing suit needed or temperature worries”

The most common tip from the community was “Don’t overthink it”. As parents we can get in our own heads and think that outdoor play needs to be this big organized event. Sometimes it can be and you can plan a fun activity for your children but unstructured play in nature is really healthy for children. To read more on it, check out the book ‘Balanced and Barefoot’ by Angela Hanscom.

Get Outside!

Here at Sprout, we believe that conscious parenting through these early, formative years will help raise happy, resilient children who will grow up to be happy, resilient adults. As children explore the outdoors consistently and encounter different outdoor elements, like plants, bugs, new terrain, weather, etc, their understanding of the world will grow, as will their confidence.

Tell us below about the benefits that you’ve seen in your child as they’ve ventured outdoors!

Footnotes

1 "Benefits of Nature Contact for Children" by Louise Chawla, a research review that advocates for nature to be a greater part of urban development.

2 "Balanced and Barefoot", a book by Angela J. Hanscom about the benefits of unrestricted outdoor play for children.

Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child's Developing Immune System, by Jack Gilbert

*We gave them the option to choose between the weather or the planning aspect as the greater challenge of outdoor play.

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