Why It’s Important for Children to Play Outside

Outdoor play is critical to a child’s health and well-being, but the amount of time children spend outside has been steadily declining as children spend more and more time indoors, especially in front of digital screens. On average, American children spend only four to seven minutes each day in unstructured outdoor play. By contrast, they spend an average of seven hours in front of a screen. When children don’t spend enough time outdoors, they miss out on important developmental and health benefits.

For example, one study revealed that children who played in a natural environment (compared with a built environment, like a playground) experienced improved attention and memory. There is also some evidence that children who get more exposure to “green space” outdoors are at lower risk for developing behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Many parents agree it’s important for children to play outside, and they are correct. Being outdoors, especially engaged in unstructured play, provides children with significant health and developmental benefits. However, many parents worry about sending children outside because there are inherent risks to outdoor play. 

It’s important for parents to find a balance that keeps children safe while still allowing them to achieve the benefits of playing outside. With summer break quickly approaching, more parents working from home, and fewer resources from schools and childcare facilities available, now is the time to find more ways to get children outdoors, and to do so safely.

Potential Outdoor Risks to Remember

While there is ample evidence of the benefits of outdoor play, it’s normal for you to worry about your child’s safety. You won’t be able to watch them every minute of every day, so what’s important is recognizing the potential risks so you can minimize the ones that could turn outdoor play into something harmful rather than something helpful.

Unintentional injuries are the most common cause of hospital visits among young children. You may not be able to prevent every injury, but there are some things you can be aware of and steps you can take to reduce the risk of severe harm.

  • Roadways and highways: Most neighborhoods today are built around roads, so even playing outside close to home could put a child at risk of encountering a vehicle, and drivers today are more distracted than ever. Motor vehicle accidents involving pedestrians are more likely in “urban areas, at non-intersection locations, and at night,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Teach children about the dangers of cars on the road, and to only cross the road or go into the road with an adult. Supervise young children who are playing near roadways and set an outdoor play curfew to come inside by dark.
  • Falls and injuries: Outdoor play can be fun and constructive, but it does also come with risks for physical injury. Even with the proper equipment and clothing, kids can still be clumsy and get hurt unexpectedly, so it’s important to be prepared. Have a first-aid kit that’s well stocked at home, and have phone numbers handy, as well as a plan in place, in case your child needs urgent medical care.
  • Outdoor spaces: While children are exploring outside, it’s still important to be aware of the potential safety hazards that can exist around them, such as:
    • Open bodies of water, like pools, lakes, streams, and ponds
    • Animals, including domestic animals like dogs, in the neighborhood
    • Chemicals, like fertilizer or pesticides, in outdoor sheds
    • Insects, reptiles, and other potentially harmful or poisonous creatures
    • Hazards around construction sites, if there is construction occurring near your home
    • Attractive nuisances, like pools, trampolines, swing sets, tree houses, or fire pits
    • Trees and other compelling things to climb in the neighborhood that could result in a fall
  • Stranger danger: Most parents today teach children about the dangers of talking to someone they don’t know, but the fear of your child encountering a stranger and being the victim of a crime is very real for parents. Just teaching children about “stranger danger” doesn’t always mean they will remember it, or will be able to use good judgment when they encounter these situations, So it’s important to take other precautions, like watching with security cameras or setting up a buddy system when they go out to play.
  • Protection from the elements: When children play outside, they are exposed to the elements, which means they could be at higher risk for things like dehydration, allergies, bug bites, and sunburns. It’s important to give them the proper protections and help them understand when to come inside or seek help.

Limiting Risks Without Restricting Outdoor Play

Children have a natural inclination to take risks, and parents sometimes impose restrictions in an effort to avoid all the dangers that are associated with outdoor play. But experts suggest shifting your thinking and working toward creating outdoor play spaces that are “as safe as necessary” instead of “as safe as possible,” which can help children to safely thrive in outdoor environments. The key is knowing how to prepare in advance so your child can go outside and play safely.

Create a safe place to play

Children naturally like to explore, and by creating a safe place for them to play outdoors, you can allow for this exploration, but in a more controlled way. For example, setting up a specific outdoor play area that you can easily monitor and have more control over can reduce some of the risks associated with outdoor play. Establish boundaries with your child to help you ensure their safety when you are not around, and allow them to help you make some of the decisions around these set boundaries to make them feel more independent. By allowing them to participate, they are also more likely to listen and to follow the new set of rules. Some other tips for creating a safer outdoor place for your child to play are:

  • Educate your child. Talk to kids about the risks they may face when they head outdoors. For example, teach your child about the dangers associated with roadways, and the importance of looking both ways before stepping out into the road or crossing the street, or to only go in the road when there is an adult with them. By educating your child, you can minimize the risk of a motor vehicle pedestrian accident.
  • Set up signs. For an extra layer of protection, set up signs on your property that alert drivers and others that children are playing in the area.
  • Identify potential hazards. Do a walk-through of any outdoor play areas to find hazards you can remove in advance of them heading outdoors.
  • Utilize fencing. Build a fence or other barrier that keeps them in a place where you feel comfortable leaving them to play without constant supervision. It’s especially important to erect barriers around attractive nuisances like outdoor pools.

Monitor outdoor spaces

Technology also provides parents with valuable tools they can use to monitor children and keep them safe while they play outside, even when you cannot be out there with them at all times. You can use technology for direct monitoring, such as using video or tracking devices. You can also use technology for indirect monitoring, by using tools like alarms to remind you and your children to check in at regular intervals, which is especially helpful for children who may forget to check in, or when you’re working from home so you don’t lose track of time. Let’s take a closer look at some options:

  • Install security cameras. Use outdoor home security cameras to see a live feed of your yard and monitor children as they play. These cameras can send a live feed to your phone or computer around the clock, which can give parents more control over spotting potential dangers before they become threats. This concept is especially helpful if you are working from home or need to do other things inside, but want to allow children to play outdoors.
  • Set check-in timers. Set reminders to check on your children at regular intervals using your smartphone or devices like Alexa. You can also give children their own device with an alarm or reminder to come and check in with you at regular intervals. That way, you’ll never go for too long without setting eyes on your child.
  • Monitor with apps. Install smartphone apps or purchase devices that allow you to track your teen’s whereabouts while they are outside. The FamiSafe app has a GPS tracker for your child’s smartphone to monitor their physical location (and location history so you don’t have to stare at a dot on a map all day), as well as the ability to block dangerous apps on their phone. For younger children, the Xplora 2 watch provides GPS tracking without a smartphone. There are many devices available today suitable for teens and young children to help you monitor their whereabouts when you can’t be with them.
  • Use a “buddy system.” Pair your child with a sibling or someone else in the neighborhood to help you monitor your child, and to ensure they are never alone when outside exploring — especially when beyond your property line.

Protection for your child

Children will inevitably get some cuts and scrapes while they’re playing, but there are things you can do to minimize the risk of serious injury.

  • Dress for the outdoors. Dress children in clothing that is appropriate for outdoor play, including comfortable shoes that fit properly, loose-fitting clothing, and clothing that is appropriate for the weather.
  • Wear proper equipment. Outdoor play often means sports and games that may require special safety equipment, such as helmets, wrist guards, and knee and elbow pads. Make sure you have the proper equipment on hand, that it’s in good working condition, and that your child wears or uses it as needed.
  • Check the weather. Before encouraging your child to head outdoors for a long day of play, check the local weather report for extreme heat, rain, thunderstorms, and other dangers. If you know there is likely to be dangerous weather, modify your activities and bring children to an indoor play area instead.
  • Offer plenty of fluids. Ensuring children stay well hydrated while playing outdoors is important, especially during the hot summer months. Check in at least every 20 to 30 minutes to remind them to get a drink of water.
  • Apply sunscreen and insect repellent. Apply sunscreen that’s at least 15 SPF before your child heads outside. If they’ll be in an area that’s buggy, apply insect repellent after applying the sunscreen. Reapply at regular intervals to avoid sunburns and bug bites. 
  • Identify and manage allergies. Make sure you have the appropriate medications on hand if you child has, or in case your child develops, an allergy to things like pollen or bee stings.
  • Establish an injury plan. Talk to kids about what to do if someone gets hurt while playing outside, and where they should go to get help. This is especially important if they’re playing somewhere that’s away from your property and if you’re not immediately available. 
  • Discuss “stranger danger.” Again, it’s important to tell your children to never talk to adults they don’t know, and for you to remind them about “stranger danger” regularly. Also, teach them how to get help if they ever feel uncomfortable or need assistance.

Talking to Your Child About Safety

It’s not always easy to talk to your child about safety. A child’s developing brain doesn’t always understand risk or danger the same way that you do, so just telling them that something is dangerous may not be enough. At the same time, you don’t want to approach a topic in a way that scares your child or causes unnecessary anxiety.

Talk to your child using simple language, and without trying to scare them. You can make reference to other safety measures, like seat belts, to make the conversation feel more normal. Let your child ask questions, and frame your answers in small, digestible pieces.

The Bottom Line

Keeping children active is an important part of childhood development, but going outside to play can come with some added risks. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize risks while still allowing children the time and space to play outdoors — allowing them to experience all the added physical, emotional, and social benefits that come with outdoor play.

There are also plenty of resources for parents to turn to for help keeping their kids safe while they play outside in both structured and unstructured environments. Here are a few:

About the Authors

The Reviews.com staff is dedicated to providing you with all the deep-dive details. Our writers, researchers, and editors came together from Charlotte, Seattle, San Juan, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Chicago to put this review together.