Group of kids running outside Outdoor play is beneficial for children beyond the physical activity it provides. It helps them socialize, understand their bodies better, engage in imaginative play and enjoy the outdoors. In today's busy and complex world, it can be difficult to schedule outdoor time with your child. But, it is something you should prioritize for your child's healthy growth and development.

School-aged children need about three hours of outdoor play each day. While this is a lot to add to a daily schedule, the activity will contribute to the physical and emotional health of your child.

Katie K. Lockwood, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Primary Care, Flourtown, shares some tips about how families can get active together.

Why outdoor play is important

Unstructured physical activity improves the health of your child. It reduces the likelihood of obesity and weight-related health concerns which are becoming bigger issues for families today. Outdoor play also improves mental health as a result of physical activity.

A break from devices

Screens and the amount of time your child spends engaging with a device is a key reason why outdoor time should be a scheduled activity.

“Scheduling time to actively play outdoors sets a natural limit on the amount of time your child can spend with a device (such as TV, smartphone or video game),” says Dr. Lockwood. “It promotes active engagement with their peers and the natural environment, and helps them develop respect for the world and consideration for others around them.”

Replacing some recreational screen time with outdoor play also helps reduce the risks of a sedentary lifestyle.

Improvements to sleep, mood and social skills

Unstructured physical activity during the day also helps children sleep better at night. It can increase concentration and improve mood the next day.

Perhaps the greatest health benefit is in a child’s ability to learn how to engage with others while having fun.

“Outdoor play helps children grow socially, helping them to develop healthy ways of forming friendships, responding to physical interaction, and using their imaginations to entertain each other,” says Dr. Lockwood. “It helps them solve problems, build relationships within their peer group and gain a respect for nature.”

Easy ways to find outdoor space

Knowing why outside play is important to your child's development is the first step to prioritizing outdoor activities in your child’s schedule. Knowing where to go is another step in the right direction.

To find ideas for places you might go and activities you may want to try with your family, visit your local parks and recreation website or the visitors bureaus of towns and cities near where you live. Look for things like public parks and trails, zoos, orchards, gardens and wildlife refuges.

Another resource: Prescribe Outside, Philadelphia’s nature prescription program, provides physicians and families with tools to improve the health and wellness of Philadelphia children by helping them locate and use safe, accessible, and convenient public green space and discover the many health benefits of time spent in nature. The program is a partnership between Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Awbury Arboretum, Let’s Go Outdoors, and the USDA Forest Service, and Temple University Center for Sustainable Communities.

Playing close to home

If you can’t go far or travel isn’t an option, there are still many ways to get outside close to home. Consider the following activities:

  • Have a scavenger hunt. You can look for specific objects or be a bit more general like: things that begin with the letter B, or something for each color of the rainbow
  • Do leaf rubbings. All you need are paper, crayons and any new leaves you can find.
  • Dig in the dirt. Find worms and bugs, make mud pies, and flip over rocks to see what you'll find
  • Plant something. Get some flower or vegetable seeds and start your own garden.
  • Make an obstacle course. Time each kid as they jump, roll, climb, step or go under the various obstacles. Added bonus: You can do this inside if needed.
  • Get active. Play a game like twister or hopscotch, Simon Says, Mother-may-I or the freeze dance. Take turns picking and leading the games and get involved. Kids love when you play too!
  • Learn something new. Try yoga or fishing. Dance alone in your room or out in the front yard. Build something with sticks, Lincoln logs or Legos. Share your creations or the new skills you learned with friends and relatives. Use social media if you can't get together in person.
  • Do the alphabet workout. Create an “exercise alphabet” by assigning an exercise to each letter of the alphabet. Then spell out your name, performing the exercise designated for each letter. Be sure to take a 15-20 second rest between each exercise. Pro Tip: YouTube has lots of helpful videos.

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