Whatever Happened to Playing Outside? The Importance of Outdoor Play for Kids

How long are kids supposed to play outside every day? And what are the benefits of playing outside, anyways? Read on to hear what the experts have to say about kids’ outdoor play.

When it comes to parenting, there’s no shortage of experts telling us what we’re supposed to be doing with our kids on the daily. From how long they can watch TV to how long they should play outside, the powers that be have prescribed- to the literal minute- how our kids should be spending their days.

There’s absolutely no way that you can hit every target on the head. Some days you’ll fall far short of your goals, and other days you might exceed them. It’s hard to get those numbers out of your head, and even harder not to measure your “success” as a parent by whether or not you meet those goals.

Two children running towards a play area in a park

So as with any expert advice, we want to advise you before we dig in- take a deep breath. Doctors, teachers, and parenting experts are here to guide us in the right direction, not to penalize us when we fall short. Use all recommendations as a general guide and move towards best practices over time. 

With that said, something almost ALL of those people agree on? That our kids are simply not getting enough unstructured, outdoor play time. So how can we, as parents, fix that? How do we make sure that our kids are getting the most of their outdoor play?

Two children holding hands facing towards the camera by trees. Text overlay: Are your kids getting enough time outside?

This post contains affiliate links. You can read more at our disclosures page.  Additionally, we’d like to thank SourceBooks for providing a book, “15 Minutes Outside,” for a giveaway. Thank you for supporting us!

What Happened to Playing Outside?

When you think back to when you were a little kid, a lot of your memories might revolve around playing outside.  I remember getting home from school and taking off on my bike with my friends. Or exploring the creek next to our house for hours.  Or playing endless pretend in our backyard, or gardening with my mom, or swimming in our (above-ground) pool.

There was SO much time outdoors, that it wasn’t something our parents had to consciously encourage. It was just something that we did. Do I think my mom worried about meeting the required amount of outdoor time each day? Uh, no. Because that was not a thing back then. You just sent the dang kids to play outside.

Toddler on a bicycle with training wheels outside on the sidewalk.

There are a few factors at play that can help explain what happened to playing outside. First of all, there is an increased perception that the world isn’t as safe as it used to be (when in fact, the opposite is true). Parents feel increased pressure to keep visual tabs on their children at all times- and that often means keeping them inside, where they’ll be “safe.”

In addition, parents often feel increased pressure to entertain their kids ALL.THE.TIME. Even when you talk about going “screen free” or unplugged, it usually means board games and books and hours of playdough playParenting has gotten much more hands-on than in previous generations. As a result, moms often turn to pretend play, crafts, and academic activities in order to meet the pressure to spend quality time with their kids.

The back of a little boys head in front of an active TV screen.

And lastly, it can’t be ignored- kids are spending more time using screens than ever before. According to a recent study, the average child spends a whopping 6 and a half hours watching phones, tablets, computers, and television. Kids are spending more time watching and less time doing, a statistic that is alarming to many doctors, teachers, and parents.

Are your kids getting enough time outside each day? Find out here, along with a list of great ways to play outside with your kids!

How Long are Kids Supposed to Play Outside Every Day?

According to experts, kids are supposed to play outside for two to three hours per day.

And we know, moms and dads. That sounds like a lot. Especially if you’re coming in from a long day at work and at school. We get that it seems totally daunting.

Little girl on a swing set at a park in a play area.

But when you compare it to the six hours of screen time the average child gets? Well, it starts to seem like a couple of hours outside is the very least we can do. 

What are the Benefits of Playing Outside for Kids?

There are innumerable benefits of playing outside for kids. While we often think of the physical benefits (such as higher levels of fitness and lower rates of obesity) there are also many developmental benefits to playing outside. (Source

A few of the benefits to outdoor play-

How Do We Make it Happen?

According to a recent study, only 51% of children were reported to have gone outside and played or walked with a parent on a daily basis. SURELY- we can do better than that.

Instead of focusing on the BIG picture- a whopping two to three hours spent playing outside- focus on small bursts of time. A child’s outdoor time each day is cumulative. Time spent playing at recess, an evening walk, even a 15 minute bike ride can all add up to make a meaningful difference in your child’s life.

A library book titled "15 Minutes outside" by Rebecca p. CohenI recently read a book called “15 Minutes Outside” by author Rebecca Cohen, that gives hundreds of concrete, easy examples on how to get your kids to play outside. I tend to think of outdoor play as an adventure, requiring prep and large stretches of time, but this book really helped me to see that those little stretches can add up over time and make a big difference.

Not only in the amount of time you spend outside, but also in the amount of quality time spent together as a family.

Together, we need to make some changes in the way our society treats outdoor play for kids. We don’t have to suddenly start spending hours at a time outside in order to make a meaningful difference.

Start small, and make a concerted effort to get out for just a little bit longer today than you usually do. The change of scenery may just do everyone some good.

Need more ideas on how to get out with your family and get your kids to play outside? Here are six easy ways to get started.

  • Take an Art Project Outside, like one of our process-based art activities. Not only will they help your kids to get a little more creative, but they’ll also help keep the mess OUTSIDE, and away from your beige couch (what were we THINKING getting beige anyways??)

Little girl painting on Ice with water color.

  • Get Some Open Ended Toys. Here’s a list of really cool, open ended outdoor toys from Real Mom Recs. Most of them are fairly low-maintenance, low-prep ways to get your kids out and having fun.
  • Make Outdoor Play Routine. As with any new habit, developing a routine is key. Maybe you start by walking to school once a week, or stopping by a park on your way home. Find a way to sneak a little extra outside time into what you’re already doing for more lasting results.

Salty momma Jaymi sitting with her son. Toddler is in a stroller in a Park setting.

  • Go On a Nature Walk. My kids had always been reluctant to amble around the neighborhood, until we put this fun twist on the standard stroll. Go on a nature walk- give your kids bags to collect items in nature (think flowers, leaves, etc.) and look for wildlife. You can even find printable Nature Scavenger Hunt checklists here to add some more fun and structure to your walk.
  • Take an Indoor Activity Outside. You don’t have to come up with special outdoors-only activities. Take a stack of books outside, or an art pad. Do homework outside, have a picnic, or color with chalk. Taking the things your child already loves and putting them outside is a fantastic way to help increase your time spent outdoors.

Young girl sitting in her front yard writing in a Notebook.

  • Play some old school games. These little games have been around forever- and for good reason! Here is a list of old school games you can play outside with your children (or that they can play with the neighbors while you sit on the porch with a glass of wine lemonade. I’m just saying).
  • Looking for even more outside fun? Imperfectly Perfect Mama has come up with a list of 50 fun and simple ways to get your kids outdoors.

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Whether you’re actively trying to increase the amount of time your kids spend outside, or if you’re just just getting started, just remember- progress is progress, no matter how small. Make a concerted effort to spend just a little extra time outside this week- and we think you’ll start to see the benefits of playing outside sooner than you think.

So, how about you? What is your family’s favorite way to get outside? We’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments sections!

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20 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Playing Outside? The Importance of Outdoor Play for Kids”

  1. Shared! (on Pinterest) I love these ideas, and while my intention is to get the kids outside being busy often wins. We love to go on nature walks and short hikes in the mountains, but these everyday ideas are perfect!

    • How old is your little one? I feel like outdoor play didn’t get easier with my daughter until maybe 3 or so. But my youngest is totally different- he would be outside all day, every day if I would let him!

  2. I love taking my daughter outdoors and she’s only 9 months old! I really hope with your tips that I can continue our outdoor play by making it a good solid habit. Such great ideas!!

  3. LOVE that you’re spreading this message. I’m a huge advocate for outdoor play; changing your physical state changes your physiological state! We are lucky that my son attends a daycare that prioritizes outdoor time by going out every day, twice a day (unless there’s horrible weather). They have an outdoor classroom and it’s the cutest little thing♥

  4. I remember my childhood. I spent a lot of it outdoors – riding bikes, running to the neighbors, playing kickball, goofing off at the playground, just having a good time in general. It’s a rarity to see kids outside playing nowadays, and I think it’s so sad. I get so excited when I actually see them roaming the sidewalks or in the neighborhoods! Great ideas on various ways to get out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine!

  5. Great post! I completely agree that kids (and adults) should be spending more time outside! My daughter has a great daycare and I know they spend at least two hours outside, as long as the weather cooperates. We definitely do a disservice to school aged kids by keeping them in!

  6. I’m so grateful that we have a big backyard and a safe place for our kids to play! I love your tips, especially the tip on taking a project outside. I don’t do that enough!

  7. You should make a list for rainy day play for those of us here in the Pacific Northwest! It rains all winter and gets cold and super muddy.

  8. This is so true. When I was little, I was outside until it got dark. I try to take my kids outside everyday, when the weather is nice enough. I have them do races or play hide and go seek when they can’t think of something to do on their own.

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