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Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?

Research shows that the average American kid only spend 4-7 minutes in outdoor playing. Yet they spend 7 plus hours of time per day in front of a screen. This lack of time outside in unstructured play (no, organized sports don’t count…) is detrimental to our kids.

To their health, their happiness, their creativity, their attention spans, their social, emotional and academic skills. 

In an article titled “Getting back to the great outdoors” published by the American Psychological Association they quote research that connect times outside to brain development. The research states, “children who experienced the biggest increase in green space near their home after moving improved their cognitive functioning more than those who moved to areas with fewer natural resources nearby (Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32, No. 6).

Studies have also found that the presence of nearby nature bolsters a child’s resilience against stress and adversity, particularly among those children who experience a high level of stress.

Benefits of Outdoor Play

  • Physically healthier kids (better immunity, less obesity, more physical strength)
  • Mentally healthier kids (less anxiety, less depression, better moods and sleep)
  • Increase in attention span and creativity
  • Increase in sensory specific skills
  • Stronger ability to collaborate with others, adapt to new situations, problem solve, and negotiate–all life skills that your child will NEED to be successful in the world beyond school

The need for risky play

Children have an innate need for risk taking–and some research indicates that children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence (so think about when your child is older and you want them to be able to manage risk when you aren’t there to swoop in to save them).

It also shows that lack of ample opportunity to take risks may increase fear, inappropriate aggression, and the ability to cope with stress. 

All of which translates into increased anxiety–this article also notes that “anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental disorder in children and adolescents and parental overprotection has been associated with increased rates.”

What does risky play look like?

Some ways you may see kids engaging in risky play are:

  • playing at heights
  • running at high speeds
  • using things in ways that aren’t intended (climbing the couch, going up the slide instead of down), rolling down hills, climbing rocks
  • walking on anything that requires balance
  • spinning in circles
  • jumping off anything and everything

These are things we should be encouraging our kids to do.

To read more about risky play check out the article “A Guide to Understanding Risky Play”

A little dirt never hurt

Pick up a copy of the book Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System by Jack Gilbert Ph.D. for a more detailed explanation of why I let my kids eat dirt (and gasp…I don’t always wash their hands after they have played in dirt even when they are about to eat).

Basically, exposure to low level germs and microbes are actually good for your kids as they help the immune system build itself up (read this article for more immune system boosting tips).

Professor Gilbert explains that “exposure to microbes prevalent in the great outdoors will establish a stronger, more robust immune system in young people.”

So stop stressing about washing off every speck of dirt, let your kids eat food from the floor, and stop using hand sanitizer unless you’re in a pinch and near “real” germs like cold and flu viruses (even then warm soapy water is best!)

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

This is not just a great book, but a philosophy lived by many families in Scandinavian countries and other areas of the world where outdoor play is held in higher regard.

It’s much easier to get your kids outside when you have all the right gear.

The right rain suit and boots can allow kids to stomp in puddles for hours.

Rain Gear

Some of my absolute must haves for outdoor play include the OAKI rain suit which my kids wear outside even in torrential downpour and still stay dry. Typically we wear base layers in the fall and spring as the OAKI suit is a thin waterproof material.

We have tried both the Crocs rainboots and the Bogs rainboots.

We prefer the bogs because they have a nice liner which makes them easy to slip on. They are also taller and made of a more flexible rubber.

Base Layers (Layering)

Baselayer just means the FIRST layer of clothing that is touching your skin.

We mostly use merino wool as a base layer because the material is breathable, helps regulate body temperature and is a natural fiber.

We love wool by Nui Organics and Sloomb because we wear a lot of wool year round, but if you just need a base layer you can get the Merino Kids thermal set by Simply Merino or these pajamas by Woolino.

Many moms like to use fleece for warmth. Fleece is the synthetic version of wool. It isn’t as breathable as wool, but it is a great option and is typically less expensive. These are some good fleece options: The Rocky fleece thermals for girls and boys.

Snow Gear

For snow, we are LOVING our Patagonia Snow Pile one piece.

We have tried a bunch of gloves and really love using these wool Melton Baby gloves underneath these POLARN O. PYRET waterproof shell gloves.

What’s nice is you can use both of these separately or together depending on the weather.

If your little one prefers a mitten style glove then you can get these waterproof shells and these merino mittens both by Polarn O. Pyret.

For serious snow play we have been using, and loving, these Stonez Mitts. They cinch at the wrist and elbow and are super warm and SO easy to put on.

As for hats I strongly recommend a baclava this like one from SmartWool, or a hat that pulls down over the ears.

Our favorite snow boots are Bogs. I would recommend either the Bogs “Slushie” Snow boots or the Bogs baby waterproof boot. They are super easy to walk in and really protect their feet from the cold.

My Outdoor Play Challenge

I challenge you all to purposely send your kid outside to get dirty or play in weather you normally wouldn’t.

Set up a water table and with a couple buckets of dirt and a shovel.

Let them dig a hole and plant something with their bare hands. Then don’t freak out when you see them then stick their dirty fingers in their mouth or their nose.

Bundle them up and send them outside in the snow. You can watch them from the shelter of your house if you need to.

Put on those rain suits and boots to stomp in puddles and run around in the pouring rain.

Just get those kids outside. Every. Single. Day.

Ready to join an amazing challenge? Check out the 1000 Hours Outside Challenge!

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to playin ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

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