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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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!
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.
How to Encourage Kids to Spend Time Outside
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.
- A Mini Trampoline
- Inflatable Baby Pool + Sprinkler for the summer
- Water table and/or Outdoor Kitchen
- Soccer Goal + Balls
- Basketball Hoop + Ball
- Street Hockey Sticks, Hockey Balls, Hockey Pucks (these are the absolute best ones), and Roller Blades.
- Micro mini deluxe (age 2-5)
- Micro maxi deluxe (age 5-8)
- Micro sprite (age 7-10)
- Micro black (age 10- adult)
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.