The Case for Outdoor Play—and How COVID-19 May Be Helping

Outdoor and free play have declined, but COVID-19 may be reversing the trend.

Posted Mar 02, 2021 |

  • Children's outdoor play has been linked to an array of benefits, including social skills, creativity, and stress relief.
  • Outdoor play has been falling in recent years, but COVID-19 may be sparking a shift, research suggests.
  • Parents should aim for a balance between indoor play and outdoor play, and let their children play freely whenever possible.

Children don’t play outside in free unsupervised situations today as much as they used to, research suggests.

This may be due in part to fear-inducing news reports that depict stories of child-snatching and child predators. Also at fault are parental fears of negative judgments from other parents on social media for allowing their children to play unsupervised. Other concerns that parents raise include pollution, insect-born diseases, a concern that their children will get in trouble, and skin cancer from sun exposure.

Add to this an increased emphasis on preparing children for futures through structured play, sports, activities, and academics that all build their resumés. Finally, research shows recent trends toward structured, orchestrated play dates rather than spontaneous ones, and an increase in communities that emphasize and privilege sport over free, unstructured play. Put it all together, and we have a recipe for children spending a lot more time inside than out.

However, a great deal of research has demonstrated the enormous benefits of playing outside. For example, outdoor play improves overall behaviorsocial skillsself-control and attention, social interactioncreativity, mental focus, and collaborative play. Children show less inhibition and more assertiveness — they feel more free to express themselves outdoors. Outdoor play reduces aggression and stress. Unstructured, free outdoor play, in particular, decreases instances of bullying and injury.

Cara DiYanni
Source: Cara DiYanni

How can parents balance these seemingly mixed messages? Should they keep their children safe, sheltered, and supervised? Should they spend time, money, and effort signing their children up for one sport, one activity after another? Or should they leave them to the elements, so to speak? If letting children be children — outside, without restrictions — is so beneficial, why aren’t we doing more of it? 

How COVID-19 May Be Changing Outdoor Play

While these are not easy questions to answer, recently parents have suggested that they may favor an increase in outdoor play if it is possible. One recent situation that may have made this increase in outdoor play possible, despite all the other negatives associated with it, is the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent study exploring the effects of COVID-19 on the way children play, my students and I* surveyed 67 parents of 79 children between the ages of 3 and 10, and interviewed 37 of those children. We asked parents about the time their children typically spent outside each week before the pandemic, during quarantine, and currently. 

Parents reported a significant increase in the time their children spent outside from an average of 10.47 hours per week before COVID-19 to 14.52 hours during quarantine. Importantly, the time that children are currently spending outside (an average of 11.82 hours per week) remains significantly higher than it was before the pandemic began. Children’s responses corroborated parental reports, with 62.2% of children telling us that they play outside more now than they did before COVID-19. Most parents recognize this as a good thing — 74.7% of parents surveyed reported an increase in outside time to be one positive outcome of the pandemic. 

As with all things, parents’ best bet for handling the outdoor/indoor play conundrum is to find a balance. They should let their children have time to be outdoors in all seasons, while also giving them opportunities to be left to their own devices. But supervision — from a distance — is always important. Parents should of course step in when necessary. However, it is important that they do not hover, nor try to control all of their children’s interactions, play decisions, activities, or endeavors. Showing children that they can be trusted to be independent, safe, and make smart choices is key to raising strong, free-thinking, and self-sufficient individuals. 

* A special thanks to Jessica Kardasz and Dominique White for their help with the design, execution, and analysis of this study.