As these first weeks of summer unfold, the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds parents of the benefits for young children of outdoor play. “Getting outside to play is good for children’s health on so many levels,” says AAP President Sally Goza, MD, FAAP. “Children play harder outdoors, and so getting them outside can help with motor development and overall physical health.”
Beyond these physical benefits, spending time outdoors also improves emotional outlook and has learning benefits. “Exploring nature is a way to nurture children’s curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, and it can give children a mental health boost, too,” Goza says. “We know that spending time outdoors can help children lower their stress and increase their focus.”
Follow local public health guidelines about wearing masks and keep at least 6 feet away from others not in your household. Once you return from your outdoor adventures, wash your hands with soap and water. Here are some healthy outdoor play ideas for various ages:
Babies & Toddlers
Take story time outside. Reading with children is one of the best ways to develop strong emotional bonds that give your child a sense of safety and security. 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!”
Go on a guided tour. Put your baby in a carrier or a stroller and head out for a walk. Pretend you’re a tour guide and 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 her bike. That’s the apartment building where our friend lives.” If your baby 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.
Break out the bubbles and balls. Blow bubbles and challenge kids to chase them to catch or pop them. Who can make the biggest bubble? Who can make a double bubble? Let toddlers fill a bucket with water and some dish detergent, stir up the bubbles with a whisk and explore their properties. 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 builds motor planning and balance skills, and helps teach social turn-taking.
Start a nature collection. Rocks, acorns, leaves, pinecones, seashells, vials of sand from beaches visited — these all make for great collections for kids. Collecting helps build focus, patience and commitment as kids learn to discern what makes an object worthy to be added to their treasures. Find a place in their bedroom or outside where they can safely keep these items, and return to them again and again.
Go for a silly stroll. Take a cue from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks skit and 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!
Take imagination outside. 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.
Raise a yardwork helper. Preschoolers are just the right age to give small, helpful tasks such as watering flowers. Preschoolers love to feel like helpers, and many yardwork tasks provide sensory input that can be calming.
Leave a trail. Help kids maintain important friendships by coordinating with the parents of your children’s friends to send kids on “secret spy missions.” One family goes on a walk with some sidewalk chalk, drawing arrows and letters along the way to spell out a secret message. When that family returns home, they call or text the other family with the coordinates of the starting location for the “mission.” That family follows the arrows and records the letters to spell out the secret message.
Take a walk-and-talk. School-age kids might find it easier to share how they are feeling while walking side-by-side with you rather than during a face-to-face conversation. A short daily walk can be a great time for an emotional check-in with your child to see how they are handling the “new normal.” Some children also open up while tossing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball back and forth.
Make a birdfeeder. Birdfeeders are great ways to attract wildlife to your window or yard, and 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.
These tips are offered as part of the American Academy of Pediatrics partnership with toy and game company Melissa & Doug to foster early brain development and champion the health benefits of open-ended play. Learn more at MelissaAndDoug.com/PowerOfPlay.