6 reasons children need to play outside

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Here’s something really simple you can do to improve your child’s chance of future health and success: make sure he spends plenty of time playing outside.

There are many ways in which this generation’s childhood is different from that of the last generation, but one of the most abrupt contrasts is the degree to which it is being spent indoors. There are lots of reasons, including the marked increase in time spent interacting with electronic devices, the emphasis on scheduled activities and achievements, concerns about sun exposure — and, for many families, the lack of safe outdoor places to play. It’s not just children; adults are spending less time outdoors as well.

Here are six crucial ways playing outside helps children:

1.   Sunshine. Yes, sun exposure — especially sunburns — can increase the risk of skin cancer. But it turns out that our bodies need sun. We need sun exposure to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a crucial role in many body processes, from bone development to our immune system. Sun exposure also plays a role our immune system in other ways, as well as in healthy sleep — and in our mood. Our bodies work best when they get some sunshine every day.

2.  Exercise. Children should be active for an hour every day, and getting outside to play is one way to be sure that happens. They can certainly exercise indoors, but sending them outdoors — especially with something like a ball or a bike — encourages active play, which is really the best exercise for children.

3.  Executive function. These are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask; they are crucial for our success. Creativity falls in here, too, and using our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. These are skills that must be learned and practiced — and to do this, children need unstructured time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed (perhaps forced) to make up their own games, figure things out, and amuse themselves. Being outside gives them opportunities to practice these important life skills.

4.  Taking risks. Children need to take some risks. As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do — and they may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks. Yes, you can break an arm from climbing a tree — and yes, you can be humiliated when you try to make a friend and get rejected. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try; the lessons we learn from failure are just as important as those we learn from success.

5.  Socialization. Children need to learn how to work together. They need to learn to make friends, how to share and cooperate, how to treat other people. If they only interact in very structured settings, such as school or sports teams, they won’t — they can’t — learn everything they need to know.

6.  Appreciation of nature. So much of our world is changing, and not for the better. If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. The future of our planet depends on our children; they need to learn to appreciate it.

So try it. Do what our parents did: send your children outside. Even better, go with them. And do everything you can to be sure that every child can do the same.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire


  1. Rian

    Hey Claire,
    Thank you for this blog! Play is lots of fun for a child. I agree to your words “make sure he spends plenty of time playing outside”. But as Michael stated outdoor play with friends has reduced over 50% because of the evolution in technology. Screen time is gradually increasing nowadays than the outside world interaction, so we parents should aware of the fact that there is no better substitute for human interaction. I also read a blog: https://iraparenting.com/child-development/role-of-play-early-childhood-education/
    The blog looked at play in a generic way and not just outdoor play.
    Other than the benefits that you have listed, play contributes more in child’s development that includes:
    · Play is important to a child’s healthy brain development
    · Play allows children to express, and learn about feelings
    · Parents can improve their relationships with their children by learning how to play with them in a specific way using selected toys
    · Play contributes to language and social skills, like cooperation and compromise
    · Independence and emotional resilience of a child can improve through play.

  2. Michael Follett

    Thanks for the article – the more voices for the importance of play the better.

    OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning is a not for profit dedicated to ensuring all elementary and primary school children have an hours high quality play opportunity every school day. Changes in society have meant outdoor free play with friends has all but disappeared for over 50% of children.
    Here is the latest research form Rearson University Toronto into the impact of OAL’s work in Canada https://tinyurl.com/ycrxwclr
    OPAL is currently working to improve play in school across the UK. and Canada and also has projects across Europe, New Zealand and Australia

  3. Dr. Lía A. Roth

    Another reason for playing outdoors has to do with sight development.

  4. Marc

    A terrific article. Here are more facts you should know about sun exposure:
    Worldwide, the use of sunscreen increases each year, and the risk of melanoma increases in lockstep. In addition, each year we get less sun exposure due to indoor lifestyles, and the risk of melanoma rises again. Why can we not learn that sun deprivation is the problem, not sun exposure, which is vital to human health? Here are some additional insights into the health benefits of sun exposure:
    •75% of all melanomas occur on areas of the body that are seldom or never exposed to the sun.
    •Women who actively seek the sun have half the risk of death of those who avoid the sun.
    •A Spanish study shows that women who seek the sun have one-eleventh the hip-fracture risk as those who avoid sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    •Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, essential to a properly functioning nervous system.
    For more information: sunlightinstitute.org

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