Outdoor play is correlated with physical activity, improved motor skills, better vision and vitamin D levels — health benefits which have made outdoor play, especially in natural surroundings, vital for children.
Kids today spend less time outside than any previous generation. That’s probably not a surprise — we live in a world filled with big screens, small screens, screens that attach to your wrist and screens that attach to your face. When combined with factors like busy lifestyles, shrinking access to natural spaces and parks, schools cutting opportunities for outdoor play, and neighborhoods that may not feel safe, it’s no wonder most children fall well short of the daily recommendation of 60 minutes of outdoor play.
As parents, we understand why that can feel like an impossibly high bar. But it’s a bar worth clearing. Outdoor play is correlated with physical activity, improved motor skills, better vision and vitamin D levels — health benefits that have made outdoor play, especially in natural surroundings, a focus for programs like the University of Washington EarthLab, which brings together researchers and practitioners to further understand the impacts of nature on human health.
But systemic changes can be years in the making, so what can well-meaning but busy parents do now?
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Step One: Remember you’re not alone — We can’t do it all. And that’s OK! Most parents are juggling busy lives and competing priorities. The majority of children under 5 spend considerable time in the care of someone other than their parents. And of course, school-age children likely spend more waking hours at school than at home.
That means we need help from all our child’s caregivers to create the outdoor time they need to stay healthy.
And that idea brings us to step two.
Step Two: Ask the right questions — Chances are, you haven’t discussed your child’s outdoor time with their other caregivers. A study conducted at the University of Washington in 2016 showed that more than half of parents don’t know how much time their preschooler spends playing outside in child care.
At the same time, educators report pressure to prioritize academics over outdoor play. In fact, only two-thirds of Washington child-care centers report meeting the daily recommendation of 60 minutes of outdoor time, despite research showing that 87 percent of preschoolers’ parents agree outdoor playtime is an important learning activity.
This disconnect is a problem. You can take the first step toward improving your child’s health by asking about and advocating for outdoor and active play opportunities with your child’s teachers and caregivers. Furthermore, explore outdoor or nature-based after-school programs, or community programs and summer camps that offer outdoor experiences.
Step Three: Make the most of your time — Maybe you can’t get all the outdoor time with your child that you’d like, but what you’re lacking in quantity, you can make up for in quality. If you want to get the most out of your time outdoors with your kids, nothing beats nature. Time in nature is associated with improved focus, reduced stress and other health benefits.
Getting into nature doesn’t mean summiting Mount Rainier with a 6-year-old in tow. Resources like BestStart Washington’s Project Nature can point you to local nature parks, hikes and other activities that will keep your family connected with the natural world close to home. If your time is limited, make a goal to take a 10-minute walk a few times a week with your child somewhere you enjoy. It’ll be good for you too!
Yes, in the Pacific Northwest, getting outdoors will mean braving the elements. But with some warm rain gear and a little peer pressure from scheduling outdoor activities with friends, you’ll find it’s actually pretty easy to stay active during the rainy winter months.
Like building any habit, spending time outdoors doesn’t happen by accident. Advocate for your child’s outdoor time. Approach physical activity and time in nature with the same level of priority and care you dedicate to other aspects of caring for your children.
And don’t worry about getting a little soggy — that’s half the fun!