Prioritizing Outside Time with Kids

Has the past year had you spending too much time indoors? Have you felt cooped up, tied down to your screens and electronic devices, scared to be out of the cocoon of your home? Many people have felt this way, especially during the time of lockdown.

However, there is an antidote to the fear, anxiety and overwhelm felt between the four walls of our homes. That antidote is simply spending time outside. Today, I’m going to give you practical resources for getting your kids to spend more time outside. The reasons outdoor time is so important, and tips to get you motivated!

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Benefits of Outside Time for Kids

There are so many reasons to spend time outside, it could almost go without saying. But our modern society seems to have forgotten that being outdoors is our natural habitat! Here are some of the main benefits of being outside (for kids and all of us).

Proper Vision Development

Ever since I read a study about the importance of spending time outside for proper eye development, I have made an extra effort to make sure our kids had time outside. But beyond preventing myopia, outside time is essential for kids on so many levels.

Exercise

It practically goes without saying, that when you’re outside you are more inclined to exercise. Not that you can’t just sit around, that works too.

However, I find kids will naturally start climbing and running as soon as they are released from the confines of the home. And well, I don’t think anyone living this day and age will deny the benefits of exercise for kids and people of all ages.

Physical Development

Along the same lines, spending time outdoors is crucial for development of the vestibular system. This system of balance involves coordination, balance and awareness of the body. Then this translates to a sense of where the body is in the environment.

Movement helps kids develop physical strength and balance, as they move against gravity.

Vitality

In addition to better physical wellbeing from exercise, spending time outside is associated with better vitality. And who doesn’t want kids that are strong, active and energetic? That’s what being a kid is all about.

Grounding

Have you heard about all these new grounding blankets on the market? Grounding is also called earthing, and it involves getting your bare skin in contact with the earth. This brings our body in sync with the electrical field of the earth. It has proven benefits for our physical health.

The absolute easiest way to get the benefits of grounding, is to spend some time sitting on the ground with your hands on the earth or walking barefoot.

When we lived in New York, we would regularly go to the beach, and our kids would inevitably end up lying on the sand rolling around. How’s that for some fun grounding?

Vitamin D

The recent pandemic has made vitamin D almost a buzz word of sorts. But the fact is that vitamin D is absolutely essential for our health. Vitamin D is not a true vitamin, but actually a hormone, that is synthesized by the skin from cholesterol when exposed to sunlight (UVB rays).

The reason being out in the sun feels good is because it is good for us. Our bodies are amazing, so let’s trust them and work with them instead of against them.

Nature is Calming and Beautiful

There is nothing quite so beautiful or majestic as a natural landscape. That beauty is good for us and good for our kids. Our experience has been that within minutes of being immersed in nature whiny kids will become interested, inquisitive, and calm.

Push through the complaints of the first few minutes, and watch your children be transformed. I’m not sure why but I am always surprised when this miracle happens time and time again.

Why Outside is Better than Inside

Along with all those great beneficial reasons to be outside, it is also important to note that spending too much time inside has quite a few detriments.

Air quality

Indoor air quality is almost always significantly inferior to fresh air from outside. With the exception of smoke from fires, you will get better air quality outside.

You can try to mitigate your indoor air pollution using air filters. (We have this one and are happy with it). However a lot of mitigation will actually involve opening windows, to get that outside air!

Mood Problems

There are many negative effects of staying indoors all the time. I think one of the clearest problems is that it negatively affects your mood. Adults can easily ignore their mental wellbeing (not that I would encourage that at all), but for kids, it’s our job as parent to help them learn to regulate their emotions.

The cure to whiny kids and crying babies, assuming basic needs of food and sleep have been met, it taking them outside. Try it!

Sleep Problems

The light from the sun is extremely important for us in regulating our circadian rhythm. Natural light encourages us to be awake during the day and asleep at night. One of the best things you can do, is step outside every morning!

Parents of young children know that kids will naturally sleep from sunset to sunrise, that’s why they wake up early (much to our chagrin)! But we need to encourage good sleep habits and if we are indoors all day, this is much harder. Artificial light, and especially blue light from devices and screens make it much harder to fall asleep on a regular schedule.

walking to school

How to Encourage Kids to Spend Time Outside

Modeling!

As with everything in parenting, what we do as parents has the greatest effect on what our children do. It’s not enough to say: “go outside”. It’s up to us to show them with our own two feet.

I have a whole article for you on bringing city kids closer to nature, because when you live in a city that does pose a more difficult challenge. But all of these techniques are really useful for anyone that hasn’t spent a lot of time outdoors.

For our family, we have instituted a family walk or hike at least once a week. Just as you can institute a family dinner or a family movie night, make it a ritual to spend time outside: picnicking, playing ball together, or checking out different playground are all low effort activities you can do together.

Let them Take Indoor Activities Outside

Our kids really enjoy reading, and could lounge around for much of the day in bed cuddled up with a book. On days that they seem to have low energy and don’t want to play, we encourage them to take their books outside.

Pokemon cards are a recent obsession in our house, and the kids will definitely take their Pokemon cards to play on the grass. Not great for movement, but at least they are getting fresh air and sunlight.

Now that we live in a house (and I am aware that is a privilege), our four year old will gladly sit outside to play with play doh on our porch, or take out a sticker book. A nice bonus is that there is less chance of play doh getting stuck on furniture at home.

You could definitely take coloring books to a neighborhood park in normal times.

Track Time Outside

For some kids, checklists, and tracking charts are extremely motivating. One tracker I really like is by 1000 Hours Outside! You can print out a chart to color in every hour spent outside. If you think it through, one thousand hours spread over a year is just under 3 hours a day.

When we were living in New York area, we would aim for at least one hour a day in the winter, and average it out by spending 6 plus hours a day out in the summer.

Get New Stuff

Despite trying to be a minimalist, we have found that we get a huge return on investment in outdoor gear and sports gear for kids. We are practically guaranteed a few days of intense play with any new outdoor purchase.

Bikes, scooters, and roller blades get a ton of play. But you know what gets the most play? A soccer ball!

There is nothing like a shiny new ball to get our kids playing. But getting gear doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We’ve picked up some great outside toys in our local Buy Nothing group.

Ideas of toys to play with outdoors

Outdoor purists may say to limit toys to encourage independent, creative free play. However, it takes time for reluctant kids that have been in scheduled activities to warm up to this idea. In the interim, outdoor toys are a great medium for encouraging outdoor play.

Here are a few concrete ideas of toys we have bought and play with outdoors. We own all of these personally, so I can vouch for their success.

How Much Time do Kids Need to Spend Outside?

According to Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Balanced and Barefoot, children need at the minimum three hours a day of outdoor free play.

  • Toddlers (age 1-3) and Preschoolers (age 3-5)- need 5-8 hours a day of active play. They will do this naturally if given the opportunity
  • School Age kids (ages 5- 13)- need 4-5 hours a day of outdoor play.
  • Teenagers (13-19 years)- need 3-4 hours a day of physical activity.

Joy and Parenting

My biggest joy as a parent is seeing my children happy, mastering new skills, figuring stuff out on their own. Every opportunity I give them to play outdoors independently is an opportunity for them to learn, take some risks, navigate relationships with other children, and use their creativity.

A big part of living our values is giving our children that freedom. Freedom to figure things out. Freedom to play. Freedom to investigate and learn about their interests.

When we decided on unschooling this year, a big part of that was to give the kids this freedom to be outside, in unstructured time. I can only sing the praises of this so far: the kids are happier have much better self regulation.

Does your family prioritize outside time? What do you like to do together? Did this give you some new ideas of things you can do together as a family outdoors?

Pictures in this post from the Salt Marsh in Brooklyn, Sharon Beach in Israel, Harriman State Park in New York, Destin beach in Florida, Brooklyn, Manhattan Beach,  and Mongaup Pond.

6 thoughts on “Prioritizing Outside Time with Kids”

  1. These are all great reasons for everyone to have outdoors time. I was always outside as a kid and really believe it helped. Such a great post with some brilliant reasoning. Get outside everyone!

    1. I agree! All of us human beings need to be outside! We seem to have collectively forgotten that, at least in much of the Western world.

  2. This is a great tips for helping make sure kids get their outside time! I agree with everything you’re saying here and how important it is for kids for so many reasons! I love all the extra tips.

  3. I love this! I hope if I ever have kids I can put your tips to use- but I agree with Emma…most of the reasons for getting them outside apply to adults too. Everything does feel a bit better when you spend more time outdoors.

    I think it’s especially important to have fun n the rain too. That way you can still have a giggle on soggy days and through the winter. Plus jumping in puddles as a kid is THE BEST!

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