Get Little Ones Outside for Healthy Bodies & Brains
Walk by an outdoor playground or park and you’ll see kids buzzing around as the air fills with screams and laughter. To adults, this is just kids playing and having fun. To kids, however, this is serious business.
These kids are working their bodies and brains. They’re developing stronger muscles and bones. They’re making brain connections, fine-tuning their motor skills, working on their social skills, and expanding their imaginations.
Outdoor play is more than letting kids expend some pent-up energy. It’s an important part of early development and learning. A review of current research by the Children and Nature Network shows that there are lots of benefits to playing outside.
Outdoor Play Promotes Physical Health
When children play outdoors, they stay far more active than when indoors. Children who participate in vigorous activities — such as running, jumping, and skipping — are more fit, have better bone health, and grow up at a healthier weight, compared to more inactive children.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that children ages 3 through 5 should be physically active for about 3 hours throughout the day for the best growth and development. Keep kids moving with a variety of light, moderate, and vigorous activities so they get some activity off and on throughout the day —unless they’re sleeping.
Parents and caregivers can encourage active play that includes a variety of activity types. Children benefit from structured activities — such as planned games or kicking and tossing a ball — and free play that lets them move as they want. Give children access to outdoor spaces that allow them to express themselves with more active movement, louder voices, and messier play.
Outdoor Play Invites Children to Learn
“Outdoor play is another classroom we often forget about,” said Vanessa Plourde-Smith. Plourde-Smith is a Professional Development Specialist with thread, a statewide organization that works to advance the quality of early education and child development. She provides training and technical assistance to childcare providers and has special training in outdoor play and learning.
“While playing outside, kids are learning language, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), social-emotional skills, and being respectful of plants and animals,” Plourde-Smith said.
Outdoor play is more than letting kids loose on a playground or backyard with play equipment. It’s about helping children connect with nature. Adults can provide safe, stimulating outdoor spaces that allow curious children the opportunity to explore nature. Include natural materials in backyards and playgrounds. Plourde-Smith recommends tree stumps and logs for climbing and balancing on rocky paths to build ankle strength.
“Taller plants where kids can ‘hide’ — although the adults can still see them — are good for kids to feel like they can get away and relax,” said Plourde-Smith. “Kids are also more likely to engage in dramatic play if they think they aren’t being watched.”
Set up a small garden or pots of herbs, vegetables, or flowers and let children help with planting, watering, and harvesting. On warm days, water play with buckets, squirt toys, and sprinklers is a real treat. If there’s a nearby berry patch, give kids small buckets or plastic baggies and go pick some berries. In winter, grab some sleds and challenge kids to pull and push heavy objects through the snow.
Take exploring walks around the yard or to a nearby park, woods, or beach in each season of the year. Talk about the plants, insects, birds, and animals you see and how they change from season to season. Using all the senses can develop a better understanding of the outside world. Touching tree bark, listening to birds, and smelling flowers connect kids with nature. Playing and learning outside may inspire a future scientist or farmer, or just a lifelong love of the outdoors.
Outdoor Play Improves Mental Health
Time spent outdoors can help children reduce their stress levels and improve self-esteem, self-regulation, and overall happiness. Children become better learners in the classroom because they function better, and are better able to focus, concentrate, and sit still after being active outdoors.
Ever seen a child covered in mud and smiling from ear to ear? Studies have shown that playing in the dirt isn’t just fun. It can boost overall happiness and health due to naturally occurring bacteria in soil that help children’s immune systems and produce chemicals that improve mood. The National Wildlife Federation has an excellent booklet on how getting dirty outdoors benefits kids.
Outdoor Play & Learning Don't Stop When The Rain & Snow Falls
How do we keep playing when Alaska weather turns cold and wet?
“Preparation is the key to outdoor play,” said Plourde-Smith. “Start planning for winter in the fall, making sure you have the right gear on hand when the first snow falls.”
Great options in Alaska include raincoats, boots, parkas, hats, gloves, and even extra sets of clothes should the first set get wet or muddy. Plourde-Smith recommends saving money on winter gear by shopping at garage sales and thrift shops or connecting with other parents for hand-me-downs.
For extreme temperatures and bad weather, many child care sites follow guidelines from the National Weather Service, adopt the local school district policy on outdoor recess, or have a parent committee set a weather policy.
How do I Get My Child More Active Outdoors?
GET OUT AND PLAY WITH THEM! Parents and adult caregivers are role models for children. Join children’s games and active play. Children need to see the adults in their lives being active and having fun. Help your child develop a lifelong habit of being active outside.
Additional Resources for Outdoor Play
The State of Alaska Play Every Day campaign has lots of handouts, videos, and posters to promote and provide tips and ideas for active play every day.
The National Wildlife Federation has a guide, Nature Play at Home, that’s filled with fun outdoor activities and ideas for creating outdoor spaces.
The Alaska Farm to School and Farm to Early Child Care have resources to help schools and child care sites start gardens and teach children about food grown in Alaska.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has early childhood resources to help teach young children about nature and exploring the world around them.
Written by the Alaska Department of Health Get Out and Play. Every day.
Sunshine Community Health Center