- The benefits of outdoor play for children are significant in any season, with a scientifically proven link between outdoor activities and healthy brain development.
- This winter, our kids will be getting outdoors as often as possible, both for the fun and health benefits outdoor play engenders as well as to break the cycle of screen time that is all too common during the colder months.
Research suggests that outdoor play can benefit the mental, emotional, and (of course) physical development of children.
In the words of a report released by the UMKC School of Education’s Edgar L. and Rheta A. Berkley Child and Family Development Center, “Child’s play is not just all fun and games.” When kids play outdoors in a relatively unstructured manner, they enjoy the benefits of “growth and development of the brain, body, and intellect.”
Yet according to a recent NPR report, the average child age eight and under spends around two hours and 19 minutes on a screen each day. A National Trust survey found that kids aged 10 to 16 spend fewer than 15 minutes engaged in “vigorous outdoor activity” each day.
And when the winter weather rolls in, most kids get outdoors even less, “despite indisputable developmental benefits of outdoor play.”
But why? Why do kids spend so much less time outdoors when the weather gets cold? Do we worry they’ll get sick? Or that they won’t know what to do for fun? Or that they’ll simply be too cold?
On closer inspection, reduced outdoor play during winter seems more a problem of our own making than it is due to colder temperatures.
Dr. Robert Murray, pediatrician, author, and board member of Action for Healthy Kids, an organization dedicated to pediatric health and the promotion of outdoor play, put it this way: “Our culture has developed a fear of changing seasons, but there’s no distinct indoor or outdoor season.” He added that each day provides an opportunity for “the quality ‘kid time’ needed to explore, create, build relationships, and accept new challenges without parental direction” while playing in the outdoors.
Granted, outdoor play during the winter requires a bit more effort than outdoor play during the spring, summer, or fall. You can’t just push your kids out the door when it’s freezing cold or snowing. But with a bit of extra effort, the outdoors in winter can be as enjoyable and beneficial for kids as the warmer seasons.
Dr. Murray told Business Insider that he sees the reduction in outdoor time during the winter as an issue of perception and inconvenience.
“The colder months can make getting kids outdoors a hassle for parents,” Murray said, “as they fear [for their child’s] safety and have mixed feelings about exposing their children to the cold weather. With well-insulated caps, mittens, gloves, socks and appropriate layers, kids can get outdoors too and enjoy some fresh air.”
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And if you’re not sure if your child is well enough equipped for outdoor play during the winter, Dr. Murray has a radical idea … just ask how they feel. “They’ll let you know when they’re cold!” he said.
It takes longer to get my five-year-old son into his boots, snow pants, coat, hat, and mittens during winter than it does to dress him in shorts and sneakers during the summer, but I’ve got an extra few minutes to spare to make sure he can enjoy the benefits out outdoor play even in the depths of winter.
What’s a parent to do when the winter weather truly is too severe for outdoor play, with subzero temperatures, howling winds, and driving snow? Dr. Murray recommended indoor activities that foster an appreciation for the outdoor winter environment.
“Screen time is inevitable these days,” he said. “So finding ways to enjoy it for short periods of time with your kids is a win-win. Scroll through Pinterest and browse through YouTube to find fun activities kids can do and own” once they get back outside.
And once the weather permits, get the kids away from those screens and out the door!