Don’t Come Back ‘til Dark! – The Benefits of Outdoor Play

By Bob Kuehner

Growing up, I remember absolutely living outside. If my school books made it into the house, the sound of them hitting my bedroom floor was followed almost instantly by the noise of the front door closing as I went outside. Back in the day—and I realize that was a long time ago—life was a little simpler. My mom didn’t worry so much about terrorists and child abduction. The one rule I had about playing outside was simple—I had to be home by dinner. Since that was a bit of a moving target, I had to be somewhat close to home by about 6 PM to be sure I was in compliance. In North Port Alabama it gets cold in winter. There isn’t much snow, but it gets cold. During the summer, it gets hot. Nothing like the desert –but it gets hot. So… what did my mother do when it was really hot? She made sure I knew how to turn on the garden hose to get a drink. What did my mother do when it was really cold? She made sure I took my jacket with me when I went outside to play. Whatever the time of year and whatever the weather– I was outside.

29374156750_73d0f1ff82_oFlash forward to the late 80s, when my children were 5, 7 and 8. My boys played outside. I knew from experience that cold weather was not dangerous as long as I dressed them correctly. I knew from experience that hot weather was not terrible, as long as I kept them hydrated. So, when it was cold outside, what did my boys do? They played outside. When it was hot outside, what my boys do? They played outside. They’ve since grown up to be fine young men with no facial tics, stunted growth or frostbite to speak of, and are busy inflicting exactly the same torture on my eight grandchildren.

Sending your kids outside to play is good for a whole lot more than just getting them out of your hair. Although, let’s not undervalue the benefits of that, from time to time! Playing outside promotes good health and can teach valuable skills. It does exactly the same thing as a good book—it broadens horizons. With the book, those horizons are virtual. With outside play, those horizons are physical. Both lead to healthy development and growth.

Playing outdoors gets the blood pumping, literally! Since we now live in a country whose people are more overweight and unhealthy than they’ve ever been, it’s a real plus to allow your child to augment the exercise that he needs to maintain a healthy weight. We might dread exercising, but your little one doesn’t; he’ll run around playing baseball or tag, climb trees, and find all kinds of activities to keep him healthy without ever noticing that he’s doing something healthy for his body. As a bonus, burning off all that energy will be good for your lamps and other breakables—kids want to move. You’ll spend less replacing household decorations and such when you let them do it outside!

Having larger spaces to play in also allows development of both gross and fine motor skills in a way that is hard to manage indoors assuming yours isn’t equipped with a full gym.

So what about illness? We don’t want to make our children sick by having them play outside when it’s too cold. Nor do we want to risk something horrible like heatstroke when it’s too hot, right? What impact does temperature have on the likelihood of becoming ill due to limited, common-sense exposure? It turns out that when my mother used to yell at me on any stiflingly hot August Saturday morning, “Get up! Get out and play! Don’t come back ‘til dark!” she was really onto something important. Later, when I packed ‘em up and took my little boys to Little River Canyon, and we spent 12 or 14 hours climbing around the rocks, bushwhacking new trails and stomping in icy puddles over any given Christmas break, I was on to something too. It turns out that by making sure our children spent lots of time outdoors, playing, we were actually protecting them from illness– not subjecting them to more of a chance for it!

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By keeping children inside, we are concentrating the germs that cause illness into a smaller place and actually increasing the likelihood that they get sick. We incorrectly correlated the fact that our children became ill more often in the winter with the fact it was cold outside when the actual culprit was the fact, in winter, we stay inside more. This concentration of people, spending more time inside and around each other is responsible for the higher likelihood of illness during winter.

In addition to the benefits of healthier kids, when playing outdoors, children often have the opportunity to interact more frequently with one another. As this happens, they will have the chance to learn and refine cooperation and social skills. Playground interactions include the need to influence another child (I want a turn on the swing), give aid and encouragement to another child (I’m sorry you fell off the slide) and deal with conflict and aggression (No, you can’t have my candy. This is me, using my words.) This may be a scary thing for mom, however, better they learn these skills now, than later, when the other people are bigger and can hit harder!

29019170684_6d2e1cfdf4_oOutside, there’s a world (no pun intended) of things for them with which to engage. Their imagination will get a workout. Playing in different weather conditions will encourage them to overcome challenges—face-plant in the mud due to slippery grass, isn’t a game that sound’s fun, but it definitely comes with a life-lesson. As they experience outside play regularly, they’ll also learn to pay attention to messages sent to them by their body as they learn what to do if they are too hot, too cold, too tired, whatever. Of course, this requires strict management and oversight on your part. In the summer, make sure they have ready access to water and shade. Make sure they actually take water breaks and slow things down from time to time. During the winter, dress your children appropriately. And, new moms, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should use every stitch of clothing that they have in their closets! Check your child’s skin and face periodically. Take “warm-up breaks” regularly.

The takeaway here is simple. Children who play outside often and regularly all year long enjoy better physical health can become more creative, socially skilled, adaptable, and able to deal with life’s challenges. Watch ‘em closely, but get ‘em outside!


Bob Kuehner

Chief Servant & Storyteller
School for Amazing Kids

“We care for people, investing our lives into theirs for a return that pleases God.”