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Playing Outside: Why It’s Important for Kids

family hiking, dad gives daughter a piggy back ride family hiking, dad gives daughter a piggy back ride

By: Danette Glassy, MD, FAAP & Pooja Tandon, MD, FAAP

No matter what the weather brings, playing outside is good for kids in so many ways. There is scientific evidence that playing outside improves health, and children of all ages love it. And we know that the more time a child spends in nature, the more likely they are to grow up to be good stewards of our planet⁠—an environmental win!

Finding nature all around us

We don't necessarily need to travel far to enjoy nature. Your family can connect with nature in a school playground, backyard, table-top garden, or even virtually (though not with all of the benefits).

There are also many ways to find out what parks are nearby based on zip code, including some that you can get to by walking or taking public transportation. Many public green spaces have features and programs for all ages and abilities.

Read on for ways that you and your kids can get a physical and emotional boost from playing outside and spending time in nature.

Outdoor play ideas by age

Playing outside and exploring nature is for all ages! Some ideas to consider:

Bring your infant or toddler outside.

Being outside gives your little one enjoy sensory-rich experiences and physical activity their rapidly developing minds and bodies need.

  • Get down to earth. Toss down a blanket on the grass or soft earth. Let your baby enjoy the fresh breezes, bird songs, forest smells and plant textures. Give them some outside tummy time, blowing bubbles for them to reach for and watch glisten in the sun.

  • Go on a guided tour. Pretend you're a tour guide; try to see your neighborhood through the eyes of someone who has never been there before. Describe out loud all that you see in as much detail as possible: "This is where your big sister skinned her knee learning to ride their bike. That's the building where our friend lives. I think it was built a long time ago...."

    If your child is in a stroller, stop and squat down to their level, see what is getting their attention and talk about it. This kind of running commentary helps kids learn vocabulary and communication skills.

  • Take story time outside. Reading with your child is one of the best ways to develop strong emotional bonds, helping build a sense of security is essential for growth and development. Grab a blanket and a few books and find a shady spot for outdoor story time. Ideally, bring along books that are set outside so you can help your child make connections: "Oh, look, a picture of a cloud. Let's look up in the sky to find a cloud!"

  • Let’s roll. Ball play is another great way to engage this age child outside. Sit on the grass across from one another and roll a ball back and forth. This not only builds motor planning and balance skills, but also helps teach social turn-taking and watching each other's body language.

Explore with preschoolers & grade-school age kids.

Young children are developing and learning from every experience.

  • Build nature sculptures with twigs, leaves, cones, rocks and more by sticking the collected items into a play dough base. Ask your child what kind of patterns they see with the different items. Or, let your child play in mud with old pots, pans, utensils and household tools to develop senses and motor skills.

  • Take imagination outside. The wonders of the outdoors can inspire new ideas. Trees and bushes can become hideouts, rock walls can become mountains for favorite figurines, while flowers can become jungles for toy animals. Let children draw make-believe worlds on the sidewalk in chalk, or creative obstacle courses to run! If your children tell you they don't know what to play, then think up something you played as a child.

  • Raise a yardwork helper. Many children may groan when asked to help out in the yard,but preschoolers are just the right age to give small, supervised helpful tasks such as watering flowers. Preschoolers love to feel like helpers, and many yardwork tasks provide sensory input that can be calming.

  • Bike or walk with the family in your neighborhood or find a new park to explore. If you have a bicycle trailer or your child is able to bike, get some exercise while enjoying the outdoors. Describe what you see along the way and talk about the weather. Use a lot of details to help them learn new words and engage all their senses.

  • Go for a silly stroll. Challenge kids to tiptoe for half a block, turn in circles as they walk, march with high knees, or wiggle their hips and shimmy their shoulders. Then let kids call the shots! It might be fun to trade off being the "leader" with each block!
  • Plan outdoor playdates. Meet up with friends outdoors to build social connections for both children and adults.

Challenge older children & teens.

Stay engaged with the outdoors as a family. Take advantage of this time to bond over games and activities you all enjoy or challenge yourselves with something new.

  • Hold a nature scavenger hunt or start a nature collection. Look for local plants, trees, animals and birds. Collect rocks, acorns, leaves or pinecones. See how many items children can find on a list, or gather objects to add to a collection. Collecting helps build focus, patience, and commitment as kids learn to gauge what makes an object worthy to be added to their treasures.

  • Leave a trail. Organize with parents of your children's friends to send kids on "secret spy missions." One family goes on a walk with sidewalk chalk, drawing arrows and letters along the way to spell out a secret message. The other family must then follow the arrows along the way to record the letters in the message.

  • Build a bird feeder. Bird feeders are great ways to attract wildlife to your window or yard. It can be fun to look up the birds you see, keep a list and watch what time of the year different species come around.

  • Have a ball. Kicking a soccer ball, throwing a frisbee, jumping rope or playing any sports you all enjoy can keep the outdoors fun as children get older.

  • Pack a picnic or plan a barbeque outside with friends and family. Share a meal or play a game together while you enjoy the outdoors.

  • Take a walk-and-talk. Older children and teens may find it easier to share how they are feeling while walking side-by-side with you rather than a face-to-face conversation. A short daily walk can be a great time for an emotional check-in with your child. It lets you see how they are handling any changes and challenges in their life and let them know how you are there to help them through it all. Some children also open up while tossing or kicking a ball back and forth.

Benefits of outdoor play

Getting outside provides more than a fun break for children and teenagers. It is also good for their physical and mental health and development.

Children and teens who spend time playing outside and enjoying nature can be:

  • Physically healthier. Children play harder outdoors than indoors and they need daily opportunities to do so. More outdoor time is linked with improved motor development and lower obesity rates and myopia (nearsightedness) risk. Safely getting some sun also helps us make vitamin D that our bodies need to stay healthy and strong.

  • More engaged in learning. Playing outside promotes curiosity, creativity and critical thinking and focus. Studies have found that children who spent more time in nature exploration had improved learning outcomes.

  • More positive in behavior & mood. Research shows that when children spent time in natural settings they had less anger and aggression. Impulse control also improves. This might be especially important when normal routines change for children.

  • Mentally healthier. Stress and depression are lower for all people who spend time in nature. Children show increased focus and reduced symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


Take advantage of the healing power of play in nature—near your home or neighborhood, or wherever you feel comfortable. Remember to dress appropriately for the weather. It's also a good idea to wash hands or use hand sanitizer during and after your adventure.

Finally, ask community leaders to ensure all kids have safe places to play outside. Getting outdoors, being in nature and moving our bodies is good for everyone!

More information

About Dr. Glassy

Danette Glassy, MD, FAAP, is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Councils on Community Pediatrics and Early Childhood, as well as the Washington Chapter of the AAP. Dr. Glassy recently retired after more than three decades practicing primary care pediatrics in Mercer Island, Washington.

About Dr. Tandon

Pooja Tandon, MD, FAAP, is a general pediatrician and researcher at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her research interests include studying and promoting equitable access to physical activity and outdoor time for all children.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright @ 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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