The Great Outdoors

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

Portions of this article were originally published on June 24, 2012 in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications.

In the late 1960s, life was good. At least if you lived on my suburban neighborhood block. We would eagerly do our dinner clean up chores in order to get outside. Within 15 minutes of the last bite, at least 10 kids would be gathered on one of our front lawns, ready to play. Would it be a game of kickball or Hide and Seek?  After it got dark, would it be Flashlight Tag or Ghost Comes Out at Midnight?  Some nights, it was all of the above.

One thing is certain. We took it for granted. The grass, the trees, the street with chalk-drawn bases. We weren’t inside watching TV or playing on computers. Why do that when you could run around with the neighborhood pack of kids?

It is a different world in 2012 and a different set of challenges being a parent. Outdoor play is replaced by organized sports and recess is replaced by academics.

Yet summertime offers the chance to try new things and create better habits. Here are 5 great reasons to make outdoor play a daily habit with your children.

  1. Children who play outside daily are less likely to become nearsighted. In the United States, nearsightedness has increased from 25% in the early 1970s to 42% in 2000. While modern technology is likely to play a role, a study in the United States found that two hours per day of outdoor activity makes it four times less likely that your child will be nearsighted compared with less than one hour per day. Even more interesting, playing indoor sports had no effect on visual development. Researchers suspect that the bright outdoor light is more effective than indoor lighting for healthy eye development that continues through childhood.
  2. Risk taking in play is an important part of a child’s healthy development. Learning to take risks in childhood helps children to figure out what is safe or dangerous, and strengthen developing motor skills. Children who are in over-protected environments miss these opportunities, making their eventual experiences and judgment about their abilities in a physical environment more difficult. Yet playground equipment in the United States has extremely high safety criteria, and things like swings are being removed because they are considered liability risks. In fact, limiting children’s experiences can result in decreasing their overall skills and increasing their risk for injury.  Thankfully, trees and rocks don’t come with instruction manuals.
  3. Outdoor play can provide healthy exercise in the context of fantasy and adventure, which tends to promote enjoyment and more active involvement. It’s one thing to drag yourself onto your stationery bike, and another to bike down the Rail Trail. When my daughter was younger, she used to run circles around the perimeter of our house – flying on her quittich broom chasing her friends.  My son and his friends worked throughout the summer digging a huge dirt pit that served as their fort and hideout. Both kids would arrive at the dinner table filthy, exhausted and exuberant. By definition, play provides enjoyment, and enjoyment of an activity is a motivator in doing it again.
  4. Active movement for at least an hour per day helps reduce obesity, improves mood, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves focus. Each of these factors is important for overall healthy development, but they are also critical for optimizing success in school and work.  Increased self-control is another advantage of being physically fit. Most parents would prefer their children to express their energetic abilities climbing a tree than climbing the living room walls.  Indeed, this is an important aspect of learning boundaries for behaviors and appropriate outlets for energy.
  5. Throughout most of our human history, we have been far more active than we are in today’s society. Our bodies and our brain depend on regular exercise for healthy functioning. Perhaps most important, the habits and attitudes that children develop tend to stick across the lifespan.  Your role as a parent is to create opportunities for your child to find a fit that they enjoy. Whether it is tennis or hiking, swimming or biking, gardening or splitting logs, it’s about the spark that can motivate habits for a healthy lifetime.


For further reading:  Welcome To Your Child’s Brain, by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, 2011.