It’s no secret that today’s kids are spending a lot more time indoors than previous generations did. Partly to blame is technology, like television, video games, computers, and smartphones, which often seems like a convenient way to keep kids occupied. Most kids average seven hours of screen time each day! There’s also the fact that we feel we can keep our children safer indoors – many parents perceive the world as a more dangerous place than it used to be. The things we did as kids are unthinkable now. And of course, the modern family’s busy lifestyle often leaves little time for unstructured play. Given these factors, it’s not surprising that kids currently spend about half as much time in outdoor play as they did two decades ago.
This trend toward staying indoors could have a high cost. Childhood obesity is on the rise, with one-third of kids qualifying as obese. Increased physical activity, combined with balanced nutrition, helps overweight children shed pounds and slimmer kids maintain a healthy weight. According to Let’s Move!, kids ages six and up need about an hour of physical activity at least five days a week for optimum health. Kids who play outside are running, jumping, and climbing – all great calorie-burning activities. Outdoor play also hones gross motor skills, the large muscle-group movements that are milestones of healthy development, like throwing and catching a ball.
In addition to being great exercise, outdoor play offers dozens of other health and wellness benefits. Being outside, even in the cold months, increases the body’s Vitamin D production, which strengthens bones and reduces the risk of future diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular problems. And who knew getting dirty was a good thing?! Regular exposure to the germs and microbes in good, old-fashioned dirt is actually good for kids. It strengthens the immune system and reduces the likelihood of developing allergies.
Getting outside can even make your kid smarter. The sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors stimulate the senses in a way that no electronic screen can compete with. The open-ended nature of outdoor play fires the imagination and increases problem-solving skills. Sticks and rocks can be art supplies or building materials – the sky is quite literally the limit. A 2014 study showed that kids exposed to more green spaces had higher cognitive function. Outside play has also been shown to increase vocabulary and improve listening and critical thinking skills, which increase the chances of academic success later in life.
Outdoor playtime has mental health benefits as well. Kids who play outside are less stressed than their indoor peers, and unstructured play can lead to less anxiety and depression. Outdoor play improves social skills, which contribute to overall mental well-being. Being outdoors can even reduce ADHD symptoms.
And in case you needed any more convincing, time spent outdoors can even improve kids’ sleep habits. Most kids get about two hours less than the daily recommended amount of sleep, which can lead to a whole host of problems. Of course, exercise helps tire kids out, but it also increases melatonin production – the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Also, exposure to natural light helps regulate the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep patterns.
There are lots of ways to help your kids get in more quality outdoor time. Encourage activities like pick-up basketball or playing at the skate park. Let them climb trees, play hide-and-seek, or take nature walks. Recreation camps, like Camp Live Oak, are another great way for kids to get outside and start enjoying all these wonderful benefits. Camp Live Oak can also foster a lifelong love of the outdoors that will keep kids happily playing outside all year ’round.