Benefits of Outdoor Play for Children


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children need physical activity to promote healthy growth and development. Playing outdoors fosters higher levels of physical activity than indoor play, which is vital for kids since childhood obesity rates are on the rise. Unfortunately, the average child spends less than 30 minutes of unstructured play outdoors each day.

Outdoor play has been shown to offer many other health benefits:

Getting kids outside has mental and behavioral health benefits

Studies show that children who regularly play outside are not only healthier, they are happier. The U.S. is the largest world consumer of medications to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research demonstrates that natural outdoor settings may help reduce ADHD symptoms.

Depression, anxiety and the use of antidepressants in children have steadily increased over the years. But studies show that stress levels — for both kids and adults — decrease within a few minutes of being outside. Another study found that people who walked in natural environments had less activity in the part of the brain linked to mental illness.

Kids outdoor play increases exposure to sunlight

Many children have vitamin D deficiencies. When skin is exposed to sunlight, the body produces vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium from foods to build strong bones. Vitamin D is also essential for:

  • Fighting infection
  • Improving heart health
  • Helping bones heal after injury

While too much sun exposure is dangerous and leads to skin damage, letting protected skin get exposure to sunlight can help the body increase the production of vitamin D.

Sunlight also stimulates the pineal gland, which:

  • Secretes feel-good hormones
  • Plays a role in healthy sleep patterns

Nature play improves cognition and socialization

Outdoor play boosts the ability to focus and think critically. In fact, schools with environmental education programs see their students score higher on standardized tests. Playing outside also helps kids to become problem solvers. It encourages an active imagination and creativity, for example, when kids find fun new ways to use natural materials like rocks and sticks.

Swinging, jumping and climbing also allow kids to put themselves inappropriately challenging physical situations. The benefit of this is that kids learn to conquer fear and control their emotions. And when children take turns and share by exploring or playing with others outdoors, they have improved socialization.

The ADHD Clinic at UCLA Health offers diagnosis, treatment and support for children, adolescents and adults with attention deficits or related learning and behavioral problems. If your child needs mental or behavioral support, the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry can help.