Outdoor play helps children learn skills, develop physical strength, and benefits mental well-being. Time outdoors can also provide an opportunity to make friends.

Outdoor play comes in many forms. It could involve spending time in a backyard, a local park, or more rural spaces, such as forests and national parks.

However, some people may find it more challenging to spend time outdoors with their children than others. Having access to nature is an important aspect of health equity and can reduce the risk of numerous health conditions.

This article reviews the importance of outdoor play for children, its benefits, and the alternative options for people who do not have access to outdoor spaces.

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Outdoor play is important for children for many reasons. A 2022 study states that it is associated with healthy development. A 2021 study describes some of its advantages. Outdoor play is often:

  • open-ended, allowing children to decide for themselves how to explore
  • unstructured, giving children more possibilities for play and imagination
  • less predictable than home or school, encouraging children to problem-solve
  • in natural environments, involving exposure to plants, animals, and sunshine

These characteristics make outdoor play uniquely beneficial in comparison to indoor structured play. However, despite these benefits, outdoor play has declined significantly in Western countries over the past few decades.

Less outdoor play has links to:

  • a more sedentary lifestyle
  • disconnection from the natural world
  • lower ability to navigate unfamiliar environments or deal with risk

As a result, it is important that children and caregivers use opportunities for outdoor play where they can.

Children can learn many skills while playing outdoors. For example:

  • Physical abilities: Outdoor play allows children to learn physical skills that may be difficult to practice at home. This could include jumping, climbing, cycling, skating, or team sports.
  • Autonomy: As outdoor play typically has less structure than indoor activities, children can direct their own activities, which encourages independence and decision-making.
  • Creativity: In less familiar environments than the home or school, children have to think creatively about playing. For example, when using new play equipment or climbing a tree, they need to think about how to use it. They may use their imagination to invent games that make use of the space.
  • Cooperation: When playing with others, children can also learn cooperation. For example, they may have to work together to decide which games to play or how to share the space.
  • Knowledge: Being in a natural environment can teach children more about the world.
  • Risk management: Although caregivers want to protect their children from all risks, it is important that they learn how to navigate minor risks, as this teaches them how to handle different situations and increases confidence.

Outdoor play provides several health benefits to children, including:

Physical strength and well-being

Outdoor play can improve children’s physical strength. Physical activity can also help with maintaining a moderate weight and reduce the risk of developing weight-related health conditions, including:

  • type 2 diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • cancer

Mental well-being

Spending time outdoors may help lower stress and mental fatigue. This is because, while urban environments demand direct attention that can be tiring, being in nature can induce “soft fascination,” which is a type of unfocused attention that some scientists believe can restore mental energy.

Outdoor play can be more beneficial to children than indoor play because it provides multi-sensory stimulation and requires children to be more dynamic, using their physical, cognitive, and social skills all at once.

In contrast, indoor play tends to have fewer elements, takes place in a smaller environment, and may have more rules limiting what children can or cannot do. The home is also more familiar and can stop being as challenging to children as they grow up.

A 2018 study found that preschool children from five different child care centers who played outdoors were more active outdoors than indoors.

Despite the benefits, outdoor play is not accessible to everyone. According to a 2021 review, this is due to a combination of factors, such as:

  • increased urbanization
  • low availability of play spaces
  • poor urban planning that makes cities less walkable
  • increasing appeal of device-based activities
  • fear surrounding the risks of outdoor play
  • low social cohesion, as this reduces caregivers’ perceptions of safety in the neighborhood

These factors can affect families from many backgrounds, but inequity compounds them. Additional obstacles some families face include:

  • Economic inequity: Neighborhoods with less investment may have fewer outdoor spaces and more crime, reducing how possible or safe it is for children to play outdoors. Families with lower incomes may also have less time for outdoor recreation due to working long hours or having multiple jobs.
  • Pollution: Even if outdoor spaces are available, they may not be healthy places to spend time in due to pollution.
  • Racism: Systemic racism adds to the deprivation of neighborhoods. Environmental racism may also expose children to high levels of pollution, and the potential for experiencing discrimination or police brutality may cause caregivers to keep children indoors.
  • Sexism: A 2019 review notes that previous research has found that girls play outside less than boys. Some studies have found that caregivers treat girls differently from boys when it comes to managing risk, encouraging boys to deal with problems by themselves more often. This may mean girls feel less confident playing outside without supervision. Caregivers can also restrict girls from playing outside due to fears of assault.

Whether or not children have access to outdoor space, caregivers can still encourage them to get similar benefits. Some ways to do this include:

  • giving children open-ended and unstructured time to play at home or in a backyard
  • creating a play space that engages the senses through color, textures, or smells
  • recreating activities children can do outdoors, such as races, scavenger hunts, or building forts
  • playing physically active games or sports together
  • allowing children to solve problems for themselves, where it is safe or appropriate
  • treating girls the same way as boys
  • inviting friends and schoolmates home for playdates
  • limiting the use of electronic devices
  • accessing outdoor play when possible, such as on trips or when visiting others

Outdoor play has a multitude of physical and mental health benefits for children. Spending time playing outdoors can promote creativity, independence, and problem-solving. Outdoor play can also improve strength, endurance, and mental health.

However, not everyone has access to outdoor spaces where their children can safely play. In this case, people can take several steps to encourage children to gain outdoor play benefits while spending time indoors, such as by playing physically active games.