Outdoor Play and Childhood Development

Modern lifestyles are becoming unhealthier worldwide. Today’s children tend to spend a lot more time indoors than past generations of kids. Whether it is young toddlers being given an iPad to settle them down throughout the day, the constant need of computers for classwork at an increasingly young age, or the persistence of phones everywhere around us, there is an increase in the use of technology in our society, especially at a young age. This is resulting in children having decreased exposures to outdoor environments. In fact, a 2018 study in the United Kingdom revealed that children spent about four hours outside per week, roughly 50% less than their parents had as kids (Kennedy, 2022).

Due to the increase in electronic usage in our society, along with social changes that go along with the “urban environment”, most kids are practicing unhealthy habits and routines, such as playing inside, watching tv all day, and engaging in less physical activity (Sobko, Tanja, et al 2016). A term that describes this phenomenon is Nature Deficit Disorder, which suggests that children can experience behavioral changes when spending less time outdoors. This term also outlines the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness (Louv, 2005).

Watching TV

As there is a decrease seen in time spent outside, children are therefore not playing outside in nature nearly as much as children in the past have. Many parents, who grew up exploring and playing in nature throughout their own childhoods, are worried and wonder if the decrease in outdoor play will negatively impact their child’s development. 

Why is it so important for kids to go outside?

Besides promoting their physical health, it helps their cognitive development! 

Childhood cognitive development occurs in many stages that are progressive and result from continuing experiences with the natural environment. During the ages of 3-6 years old and 7-12 years old a child is most likely to develop specific cognitive and developmental skills that are essential for learning processes later in life. Contact with nature during these times promotes creativity, imagination, intellectual and cognitive development, and boosts social relationships in children (Heerwagen and Orians 2002, Kellert 2002, 2005). 

Going outside in nature…

  • Builds confidence in your child! The way that kids play in nature has very little structure, especially compared to most types of indoor play, and has a lot of room for curiosity, which in turn builds confidence and influences your child’s cognitive development. This influences autonomy in your child (Cohen, 2021).
  • Promotes creativity and imagination in your child! The unstructured outdoor play style allows children to interact meaningfully with their surrounds! They interact with the environment by thinking more freely, designing their own activities, and approaching the world in inventive ways. As this play promotes your child’s creativity and imagination, their brain is growing in cognitive development (Cohen, 2021).
  • Provides different stimulation for your child! Although nature, and its gentle ways, may tend to seem less stimulating than an action-packed television show, natural environments activate more senses in your child. In these outdoor play environments, they can see, hear, smell, and touch their surroundings, whereas in an online setting they are limited in this capacity. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience” (Cohen, 2021).
  • Makes your child think! Louv says that nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide (Cohen, 2021). When children can play in backyard and in parks, children naturally become curious and ask questions about their surroundings in ways that that they wouldn’t in an indoor environment. When natural environments are introduced to children, they are able to think beyond their immediate surroundings and build well-rounded perspectives, which influences their development (Nwatu, 2021). 

It is never too late (or too early) to encourage your child to spend more time playing outdoors! 

There are outdoor environments and play opportunities for all ages. For babies, playing outdoors can help them learn about their different surroundings by watching the birds, feeling the grass below them, and breathing in the fresh air. For toddlers, playing outside can help them explore and test out their skills such as throwing/kicking balls, playing with different natural elements such as rocks, sticks, and sand, jumping in puddles, and many more. In preschool, children are learning to play with others and enjoy make believe activities. Outdoor play in this time consists of many games of hide and seek, crawling over fallen trees, making mud pies with dirt, naming the birds and insects you hear, and playing different games on a playground. For a school aged child who enjoys more structured play, outdoor play may involve lots of extracurricular sports, climbing trees, and building with materials found outside (Outdoor Play, 2022).

Tips for parents on how to get children outside more:

  • Change your mindset! Stop thinking about nature time as leisure time, but instead as an essential investment in your child’s, and your own, health and well being. When we are able to change our mindset, we can then begin to change our priorities to include more nature in our daily lives (Knight, 2021).
  • Tell your children to go play outside in the backyard and that it’s okay to get wet, dirty, and messy. It is incredibly important that your child knows its okay to get a little messy sometimes. Let them get creative by giving them balls, sidewalk chalk, and buckets. Interacting with nature in this way is important for kids’ development as it fosters curiosity and develops their senses (Sporer, 2017).
  • Use natural resources as play equipment! You can use tree stumps for jumping off, boulders to climb and sit on, logs to balance or climb on, and plants, sand, gravel, and wood for jumping over, walking through, and throwing. When children are able to use these natural resources, they are able to engage in imaginative play and physical exploration where they can spontaneous and unstructured (Sprorer, 2017).
  • Organize a play group/outdoor playdate that meets after school for snack and playtime! During this time you can meet the other children and their parents while taking the kids and friends to a park, creek, or lake (Sporer, 2017).
  • Park a few minutes from school and walk with your child! Along the route, you can discuss the world around them such as colors, sounds, and items like leaves and sticks.  Continue this trend by going for regular walks, runs, or bike rides in natural settings as a family (Sporer, 2017).
  • Be excited in nature! You inspire curiosity in your child by being curious yourself. Encourage your child’s questions that you don’t know the answer to by finding out together. If you show your child that you are excited and curious by nature and the world around you, your child will begin to have this curiosity as well which fuels their development (Knight, 2021). 

For more information and tips, see the links below!

18 ways to get kids to go outside



Cohen, D. (2021, September 21). Why kids need to spend time in nature. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://childmind.org/article/why-kids-need-to-spend-time-in-nature/. 

Free Download Original People in nature, photograph, child, toddler, play … . pxhere. (2018, October 5). Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1551997 

Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of children. In P. H. Kahn, Jr. & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp. 29–63). MIT Press.

Kellert, S. R. (2005) Building for Life – Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Island Press: Washington, D.C. 

Kahn, P. H., & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive and Evaluative Development. In Kahn, P.H. & Kellert, S.R. (Eds.) Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp. 117–152). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Kennedy, R. (2022, October 7). Children spend half the time playing outside in comparison to their parents. Child in the City. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.childinthecity.org/2018/01/15/children-spend-half-the-time-playing-outside-in-comparison-to-their-parents/ 

Knight, L. (2021, October 24). 10 ways to get your kids out in nature, and why it matters. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/10/21/10-ways-to-get-your-kids-out-in-nature-and-why-it-matters/. 

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods. saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 

Martens, D., & Molitor, H. (2020). Play in appropriate natural environments to support child development (fomento del desarrollo infantil Mediante El juego en Entornos Naturales Apropiados). PsyEcology11(3), 363–396. https://doi.org/10.1080/21711976.2020.1782040 

Nwatu, I. (2021, July 21). Getting kids outside: One of the best things a parent can do. The Nature Conservancy. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/how-we-work/youth-engagement/benefits-of-outdoors-for-kids/. 

Outdoor play. Raising Children Network. (2022, April 20). Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/play-learning/outdoor-play/outdoor-play 

Sobko, T., Tse, M., & Kaplan, M. (2016, June 13). A randomized controlled trial for families with preschool children – promoting healthy eating and active playtime by connecting to nature – BMC public health. BioMed Central. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-3111-0 

Sporer, T. (2020, July 20). 18 ways to get kids to go outside. Active For Life. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://activeforlife.com/18-ways-to-get-kids-outside/. 

Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009, March). Childhood development and access to nature: A new direction for Environmental Inequality Research. Organization & environment. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162362/. 

Summers, J. K., Vivian, D. N., & Summers, J. T. (2019, November 5). The role of interaction with nature in childhood development: An under-appreciated Ecosystem Service. Psychology and behavioral sciences (New York, N.Y. 2012). Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7424505/. 

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