Like many parents across the country, my husband and I are constantly trying to balance and prioritize what’s best for our two young children. I’m also a researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. My most recently-published work highlights that half of preschool age children in the U.S. lack daily outdoor playtime with their parents. The topic is one that hits close to home, as there are many challenges for parents to get outside with their little ones.
Parents want the best for their children but we struggle with what to prioritize – health, safety, family time, academics, and sports. The list is endless but time is limited. The few post-work hours on weeknights don’t seem enough to get done with dinner, chores, tantrums, bath time and bedtime stories. How important is it for kids to play outside everyday? Research shows that outdoor time is important for children’s physical activity and also beneficial for their motor skills, learning, vitamin D levels, vision, and mental health. Can we really squeeze in one more thing, though? While there are barriers, I believe there are creative solutions. Here are some that my family has tried.
First of all, we’re fortunate that our children spend time away from us in places where we know they get outdoor time every day. However, we do check in with care providers and teachers, and advocate for the importance of daily outdoor play. We’ve also tried to think about how and where we spend our time together – and can we move more of it outdoors. Can we walk somewhere, instead of driving? Let’s pack a picnic and eat outdoors. How about doing the play date at the park? My two- and six-year-old boys have become interested in gardening lately, which provides hours of messy outdoor family fun and last year, two okras and a baby pumpkin.
We’ve also found it helpful to change our mindset about weather as a barrier. I recently visited an outdoor preschool on nearby Vashon Island (Cedarsong Nature School) and children in that setting are outside three to four hours every day, regardless of the weather. This is a model common in many European countries as well. Cedarsong’s motto is one we’ve adopted: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing choices.” Bundled up in our jackets, gloves and boots, rainy day hikes can actually be fun. And honestly, it’s usually not the children complaining about the weather.
With the beginning of spring and the time change, we have more light in the evenings for after dinner walks or playground visits. But even during the darker months, we’ve taken “flashlight walks” – we walk around the neighborhood with our flashlights and our boys have a blast. And all of these adventures are more fun when we do them with friends. Our friends and neighbors are fantastic resources for supporting our kids’ outdoor play time in other ways, too: Sometimes one parent may take several children out for a bike ride or keep an eye on them while they draw all over the sidewalks with chalk.
Almost every adult I speak with about this topic nostalgically recalls a childhood filled with memories of hours of outdoor play. Yet, many children in this generation are experiencing a very different, sedentary, digital, structured, indoor childhood. The challenges to changing that are probably different for each family, for each community. But I want to believe that things can change. Because resurrecting outdoor play time is worth it.
In this video Dr. Tandon discusses findings from her study on the frequency of parent-supervised outdoor play of U.S. preschool age children:
In this video Dr. Tandon offers tips for parents on how to ensure preschool age children get outside to play on a daily basis: