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  • Writer's pictureTutorWiz Staff

The Lost art of Outdoor Play: how kids are losing out on the academic, social and health benefits of unstructured time outside.

Updated: Jun 28

Here's a very easy way to increase your child's chances of success and health in the future: make sure they spend lots of time playing outside.

Despite their well-known benefits, many parents face challenges in ensuring that their children participate in outdoor play. This is a struggle that I, too, can relate to. Recently, I came across a website 1000 Hours Outside, which strongly advocates for outdoor play and encourages moms to get their children to play outside for 1000 hours a year, which translates into 3 hours a day. Her advice is supported by experts: the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests at least one hour of unstructured play per day, excluding sports activities, while pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom suggests three hours per day.

As a homeschooling mom, Ginni Yurich from 1000 hours outside has the flexibility to accomplish 3 hours of outside play. However, for parents with children attending traditional schools, carving out 3 hours for daily outdoor play can be a challenge.

Nowadays, there is a great emphasis on academic preparation for children, which leads to a busy schedule of activities starting from preschool age. Afternoons are normally filled with homework and extramural activities. I know from experience that juggling my own children’s extracurriculars and studies is a challenge even though I am strict about screen time and encourage outdoor play as much as possible. Even so, it doesn’t equate to 3 hours a day.

The Benefits of Outdoor play

However, even with limited time, there are ways to inspire outdoor play, as suggested by several sources:

Ideas on how to Inspire Outdoor Play:

 1. Serve as a model:

  • Demonstrate the desired behavior to your children by getting involved in outdoor activities yourself.

  • Plan family outings to the park, go on hikes, or participate in gardening activities with your family

2. Offering selections:

  • Children are more likely to participate in activities when they are given the opportunity to make choices.

  • Give your child a range of outdoor activity options and allow them to decide which one they would like to be involved in.

3. Make it fun: 

  • Explore opportunities to make your outdoor adventure more enjoyable by arranging a scavenger hunt, building a fort, or enjoying a picnic.

  • Any fun activity will encourage your child to spend more time playing outside

4. Limit screen time

  • By implementing clear restrictions on the amount of time spent in front of screens and promoting outdoor activities, you can positively impact your child's growth and development.

  • This could entail establishing times for outdoor play or limiting screen time to certain times during the day.

5. Replace structured activities with unstructured ones:

  • This way, you can give your children more freedom in their after-school schedule.

  • Dedicate several days each week to outdoor play, allowing them to explore and engage in activities.

  • Implementing this rule and using a timer to monitor their playtime can help ensure their safety and enjoyment.

6. Taking advantage of the limited time at hand:

  • It is important to motivate children to step outside for five or ten minutes.

  • This allows them to relax, play, or run, wrestle, or dig.

  • Remember, even the smallest actions can bring about changes.

7. Take advantage of parks:

  • Cities offer a wealth of resources. By going to these free locations on a set day each week, adjusting your activities based on the season and weather conditions, you can build a sense of excitement and anticipation for both of you.

You can also encourage outdoor play by using your garden space creatively.

Transform your garden into an enjoyable place with these suggested activities:

  1. Arrange a balance beam activity for the children to develop their walking and balancing skills.

  2. Store a variety of items the child can use for playing in a waterproof container. This variety can include whiffle balls and bats, plastic golf clubs, tennis balls and rackets, Frisbees, hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and other outdoor games and activities.

  3. Design an outdoor area with a craft table or easel, providing your children with the opportunity to draw, paint, craft, or study while enjoying the outdoors.

  4. Set up a tent in the backyard to allow your children to have an exciting, make-believe "camping" experience.

  5. Grow a garden by allowing the children to take care of potted plants outside. 

  6. Create an outdoor kitchen equipped with pots and pans for making delicious mud pies.

  7. Set up a special area, known as a sandbox, with different beach toys like shovels, scoops, and buckets.

  8. Set up a hammock or swing for a fun play area for the children.

  9. Minimize your reliance on electronics. I understand that people may find this suggestion impractical, yet I have seen the benefits of doing so firsthand. Screen time’s danger lies in the length of time that people spend on their electronic devices instead of participating in outdoor activities.

Outdoor play will bring about many unexpected benefits, so any time and money spent on it will be well worth it.

The decline of outdoor play

Despite the positive effects of outdoor play, it has become less popular in recent years. This can be due to the concern of parents over the safety of their children, the prioritization of academic pursuits and the growing reliance on screen-based activities.

Parental role in outdoor play:

Parents, guardians, and teachers play an important role in setting boundaries and acting as gatekeepers when it comes to children’s access to outdoor spaces. How children use outdoor spaces reveals how they handle their own needs within the boundaries that parents place on them. Being aware of these boundaries is crucial for parents, as they can greatly influence their child's motivation and ability to engage in outdoor play. Parents should be prepared to make any changes needed to allow their children to experience the benefits of playing outside.

Ginny's podcast and my research on outdoor play have really driven home the importance of making lasting memories with my children. That's why I'm committed to planning more park outings on weekends and holidays, among other changes that I plan to make to encourage outdoor play.

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