28 Dec Play for Your Health: How To Add More Active, Outdoor Play to Your Child’s Life

By: Hannah Frenkel and Dr. Pooja Tandon, MD, MPH

Many adults today lament the fact that kids these days are not spending as much time playing outdoors as they did. Unfortunately, it’s true that many children in today’s increasingly busy and technologically connected world are losing their connection to the great outdoors and the joys of active play. As we understand more about the consequences of sedentary lifestyles, various expert organizations have issued recommendations for minimum amounts of physical activity and outdoor time for children. The current best practices for physical activity for preschool children are at least 60 minutes daily of structured physical activity (led by an adult) and 60 minutes daily of unstructured physical activity (free play), and it is recommended that children get 90 minutes of outdoor time a day. However, while most preschool age children are averaging over two hours of screen time a day, most are not getting two hours of physical activity a day.

Children are more likely to be active when spending time outdoors. However, according to a nationally representative study, only about half of preschool age children play outside supervised by a parent once a day[1]. Given that parents today are busy and many work outside the home, most young children are in childcare outside the home, where they spend more than 35 hours a week [2]. Many parents may think that their children are getting the active play they need at these settings, but unfortunately, a recent study found that children only average 48 minutes of active play opportunities a day at childcare, 33 minutes of which are outside [3]. Furthermore, a survey of all licensed childcare programs in Washington State found that that nearly 80% of child-care centers are not meeting recommended guidelines for two hours of physical activity a day and 90 minutes of outdoor time a day [4].

This trend is quite concerning given the numerous benefits of active outdoor play. Physical activity in preschoolers has been shown to have a host of positive developmental, physical, and cognitive outcomes such as:

  • Development of gross and fine motor skills
  • Healthier weight status
  • Improved bone health
  • Better executive function (like self-regulation, sustained attention, improved working memory)

Furthermore, there is evidence that play, particularly outdoor play, may benefit children by:

  • Improving concentration and decreasing ADHD symptoms
  • Encouraging decision making and creativity
  • Promoting development of social skills
  • Providing sun exposure which helps children produce Vitamin D, promoting healthy bone development

Limiting children’s opportunities for active outdoor play may therefore have many health consequences, and these consequences can extend into adulthood. Physical activity in childhood is associated with physical activity as an adult and less active children are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health issues later in life, such as depression and obesity.


Rolling down the hill time at Jefferson Park Tiny Trees. Photos by Katrina Shelby Photography.


Given the importance of active play in children’s health and wellness, what can parents and guardians do to provide these important active play opportunities?

  1. Turn off the TV and keep it out of the bedroom: Television has been found to distract children from play, even if it’s just in the background.
  2. Make a routine: Setting up a plan to provide opportunities for physical activity as part of the daily routine makes it more likely to stick. Decide on when it fits into your schedule, maybe a post-dinner walk, or some active pre-dinner playtime.
  3. Don’t let weather be a deterrent: You’ve probably heard the motto: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing choices.” Make sure you have proper attire for cold or wet conditions. And if you live somewhere like Seattle where in the winter it gets dark at 4:30pm, then get some flashlights for nighttime walks around the neighborhood.
  4. Choose active transportation when possible: Need to grab some milk from the local store? Make it a walk or a bike ride to build physical activity into your days. If you live close to your child’s school perhaps walk or bike with them to school instead of driving them, even if it’s just a few times a week.
  5. Garden together: If you have a garden, encourage your children to help out. They will be thrilled to harvest fruits and vegetables when the season comes. If you are short on space, consider using containers for a few plants.
  6. Find out what activities are occurring in your area: Many parks in Seattle have a variety of programs to connect children to nature such as nature walks to explore the different plants and animals in the area. Try to see what’s going on in your community. And if you can’t find anything, maybe you can lead your own weekend nature walk in the local park with neighborhood kids!
  7. Involve community: Set up play dates with neighboring children, and take turns supervising to get the whole neighborhood excited about outdoor play!
  8. Discuss and advocate for active play opportunities with all the adults who take care of your child: It’s important make sure your child is getting active play when they are in the care of other adults. It takes a village to support the growth of a healthy child!

More information:
ShapeAmerica.org – Active Start

Prioritizing physical activity and active play for your child is an investment not only in their current health and well-being, but their health down the line as well. And who knows, by providing active play opportunities for your child, you may end up reaping the rewards of your own increased physical activity and a renewed connection to your inner child!


Walking up the hill time at Jefferson Park Tiny Trees. Photos by Katrina Shelby Photography.


1. Tandon, P.S., C. Zhou, and D.A. Christakis, Frequency of parent-supervised outdoor play of US preschool-aged children. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 2012. 166(8): p. 707-712.
2. Child Care in America: 2014 State Fact Sheets. 2014, ChildCare Aware of America.
3. Tandon, P.S., B.E. Saelens, and D.A. Christakis, Active play opportunities at child care. Pediatrics, 2015. 135(6): p. e1425-e1431.
4. Tandon, P.S., et al., Physical activity practices, policies and environments in Washington state child care settings: results of a statewide survey. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 2016: p. 1-12.

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