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children playing outside, a boy running under the linked arms of two girls

Let’s Go Outside! 

For many of us, going outside and playing was the definition of a happy childhood. We played games like Mother May I, Red Light Green Light, and Hide and Seek. We rode our bikes to explore the surrounding neighborhoods and came home in time for dinner. Our kids’ experiences are quite different these days as technology expands its reach and the world becomes more complicated. Still, outdoor play can be very beneficial for children’s social and emotional development. Let’s talk about ways to help our kids enjoy and learn from their time outdoors.  

Benefits of Outdoor Play 

Aside from simply feeling good, being outside facilitates the biochemical effects of sunlight on neuroreceptors in the brain that contribute to serotonin levels and sleep quality. Spending even 10 minutes outdoors every day can make a difference in overall wellness and mood.  

Being out in nature engages all 5 senses: smelling the fresh air, feeling the breeze, hearing leaves rustle, etc. These sensory experiences are a great way to practice mindfulness and promote inner calmness. There are even theories about ‘grounding’ that suggest that touching the ground with our bare skin can help with multiple physical and mental issues.  

Potential Problems of Outdoor Play 

Today, the issue with simply telling a kid to go play outside is that they might not find it as appealing as children of previous generations did. Technology and devices offer entertainment that requires less effort and provides more intense stimulation than old-school outdoor games.  

In fact, many kids report hating recess because they find it boring. One of the reasons behind this seemingly odd perspective has a lot to do with children’s declining skillset in face-to-face socialization and imaginative play. The reliance on social media and devices for entertainment often takes away the opportunity to practice reading body language and communicate with peers naturally. Without the structure provided by online gaming or social media, many kids cannot come up with ways to spend time. When the crutch of technology is taken away, kids struggle to enjoy just hanging out.  

Another reason that outdoor play can feel daunting for children is the risk of ostracism that is more palpable IRL (in real life). It’s a lot more noticeable if your peers suddenly run away from you on a playground than if they stop talking to you online.  

And, of course, there’s the ever-present strange-danger that all parents are rightly wary of. No amount of social or technological progress can guarantee that our children will be safe when they leave our sight and venture outdoors. However, there are ways to make this experience more accessible, beneficial, and secure.   

Parental Involvement 

A big part of resolving the potential problems with children’s outside play is parental involvement. Participating in kids’ activities increases their buy-in and models appropriate gameplay for them. A young child is much more likely to enjoy their time if a parent is present, supportive, and engaged. Here are some great ways parental involvement helps kids play outdoors: 

Modeling Gameplay 

When kids play video games, they’re essentially handed a set of instructions for entertainment. When they have unstructured time outside, it can be difficult for them to come up with stuff to do. Help them learn to use their imagination and come up with their own games by showing them how you used to play when you were little. Teach them the games of your childhood and explore the world together.  

Raising Leaders 

Once your child gets the hang of unstructured outdoor play, they are more likely to share their gameplay with their peers. Encourage them to share the games they’ve learned from you with their friends and help them practice explaining the rules. Playing outside can create community and lead to meaningful friendships. It can also raise children’s confidence as they gain new connections. 

Teaching Safety 

And finally, set an example of scanning, awareness of surroundings, and caution as you spend time outside with your kids. Our reality is scary, but that is no reason to avoid it. Guide your children in learning to protect themselves from potential danger by recognizing it. Verbalize and explain your thought process as you cross the street and watch out for cars. Point out places that could cause injury and teach kids to seek trusted adults if they feel threatened.  

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. Also, check out our parent coaching services for support and resources. We’re here to support!   

About the Expert 

Ciandra St. Kitts is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 15 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and their families in a wide range of therapeutic settings. She specializes in helping people dealing with anxiety, trauma, death and the associated grieving process, depression, stress management, and teen pregnancy/parenting. Through a strengths-based and solutions-focused lens, she draws on a multitude of treatment modalities in order to provide her patients with the most appropriate care.