Now That School Has Started, Kids Need Outdoor Playtime More Than Ever

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Imgorthand / iStock

Your kid wakes up at 6 a.m. That’s unpleasant for an adult, and you’re a master at dragging his little butt out of bed and stuffing some muffins or toast in his piehole before blearily dressing him, brushing his teeth, threading a backpack onto his shoulders, and trudging, coffee clutched, to the bus stop.

After a full day of reading and writing and math and spelling and lunch and kid politics, of bullies and fidget-spinner comparisons and tests, he’s back onto the bus and headed home. His backpack is askew. His shirt probably has an amorphous stain. It’s 3:30 p.m.

That is a very long day for a young kid.

Your impulse is to let the poor child rest, and rest, in the contemporary American household, means flipping on the TV and staring at a flickering screen or flipping on the computer and staring at a flickering screen, or even picking up a phone and staring at a flickering screen. I get the appeal, but that’s the polar opposite of what he needs. Junior doesn’t need TV.

Junior needs a snack, and then he needs to get his butt outside. Because now that school’s started, kids need outdoor time more than ever.

According to Child Mind Institute, children spend seven minutes a day outside, and seven hours in front of a screen. That number should probably be flipped. Because we know that outdoor time is good for everyone, not just kids. A walk in nature has been proven to improve short-term memory by 20%, says one study publishing in the journal Psychological Science. Business Insider cited several studies that showed even looking at pictures of natural scenes “restored mental energy.” And a study in the Japanese Journal of Hygiene points out that “because we have already spent more than 99.99% of our evolutionary history in natural environments, it is thought that we are essentially adaptive to nature.” Their experiments showed, through the measurement of things like cortisol levels, that “stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy.”

Basically, all the research comes down to this: Humans function best when they’re outdoors more, preferably in nature. Kids need to be outside as much as possible.

And with kids inside so much during the school year, they need nature more than ever when they get home. First, it boosts their immune system. Program for Early Parent Support says a series of studies suggests that dirt, specifically the bacteria, viruses, and worms within, “train our immune systems by providing a bit of a workout while allowing our systems to figure out what is harmless.” Everyone knows that kids spending seven hours in the petri dish of a classroom could use an immune boost.

Nature even says that the benefits go beyond the school year: “Exposure to germs in childhood is thought to help strengthen the immune system and protect children from developing allergies and asthma.”

But there’s more to it than boosting the immune system. With school districts across the nation slashing recess time, kids are left without an outlet to practice basic physical skills. Early Childhood News notes, “It is in the outdoors that children can fully and freely experience motor skills like running, leaping, and jumping. It is also the most appropriate area for the practice of ball-handling skills, like throwing, catching, and striking. And children can perform other such manipulative skills as pushing a swing, pulling a wagon, and lifting and carrying movable objects.” Your child may not have the chance to practice these things very often — at least, not the way you did when you were a kid.

Extra outdoor time is a must. They need to move and play freely.

School can also be stressful — supremely so, for some children. An article from South University quotes Susanne Preston, PhD, a clinical mental health counseling instructor, who says “being outside and spending time in nature is good for a person’s mental health, as it allows them to de-stress.” The sunlight, she notes, decreases seasonal affective disorder and boosts vitamin D levels. “Research has shown that spending time in nature has been associated with decreased levels of mental illness, with the strongest links to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, in addition to increased self esteem,” Preston says.

Basically, says the Child Mind Institute, “Most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.” Business Insider says that one study found “walks in the forest were specifically associated with decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods.” And the National Wildlife Federation quotes two studies that say that “children who play outside are more physically active, more creative in their play, less aggressive and show better concentration.” All of this is stuff we want for our kids, especially when they’re in the trenches of the school year. Who doesn’t want a happier, less-aggressive student who’s more relaxed and has a stronger immune system?

So we have to get them outside. We have to turn off the TV, and kick them out in the yard. Don’t have a yard? Get them to a local park, or anywhere with a tree or two. I remember finding rich imaginative play with the few trees on my elementary school playground, an otherwise yellowed-grass lot dotted with play equipment. Of course, the benefits are maximized if they can get out into the woods, poke sticks in a stream, and stomp in puddles. But just being in the sunlight, instead of the artificial glow of the fluorescent lights, can accrue significant physical and mental benefits.

We can do this. Take away the iPad and SpongeBob. Tell them homework can wait. It’s time to go outside and play.