Outdoor Play Made Easy: How to get out there with your kids (and why you should)

outdoor play made easy

Do you ever wonder about outdoor play? How much time should your kids should be spending outside?  Some experts, like Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, say that it should be a minimum of three hours!  And that doesn’t even include any time playing organized sports.  So why should we dedicate all this time for our kids to be outside?  And how do we even do it? 

You know that feeling when the kids are getting loud and fussy and your stress level is rising?  Next time you feel like that, take a moment and take a step outside.  The calmness comes over you from the fresh air. Maybe you hear some birds or even just some cars. You notice things outside the world of what’s happening in your home. You can probably breathe a little deeper and feel a little more peaceful.  

Now imagine how your child would feel if they were taking those calming breaths after being so upset that her brother grabbed her toy.  Do you think the fresh air would help relax things for her?  Most likely, the answer is yes.

And this, among many other reasons, is the reason my family chooses to be outside with our young children as much as possible.

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What are the benefits of outdoor play?

There is so much information available about the positive benefits of being outside- for both children and adults.  Here are just some of the incredible benefits of playing outdoors:

  • Better health
  • Improved sleep 
  • Happier kids
  • Better ability to regulate 
  • Gain a sense of independence 
  • Better mental health 
  • Better sibling relationships

Get the kids outside and play!

Weather and having an outdoor space available can be obstacles in the way of getting outside.  Let’s take that out of the picture for a moment.  Let’s say it’s a perfectly beautiful spring day, and that you do have a backyard that is a perfect fit for your kids.  You and your young kids can spend just about the entire day outside.  Even with minimal toys.  And one of the best parts- it will be an easy day for you!

On these types of days, I like to maximize the outside time with my young kids.  We head outside after cleaning up breakfast.  The kids play, have their snack and then lunch- all outside.  We go inside for naps, then back out again for snack, more play and dinner.  

We’ll talk more in a bit about how to get the kids outside on unfavorable days and what to do if a backyard is unavailable to you.

Do kids need outdoor toys?

Kids really don’t need a lot to play with when they’re outside.  They will make toys with what is surrounding them.  If you feel like you are lacking in the outside toy department and need something in a pinch, try bringing out some containers that you don’t mind getting dirty.  You might choose a bucket or some plastic bowls.  Pass them off to your kids, and see what they do with them!

You don’t need a lot of fancy toys or playsets for your kids to have fun outside.  We’ve only recently started really building our outside toy collection after this past Christmas.  We have some slides, toddler bikes, balls and our beloved climbing dome.

But do you know what my kids want to play with?  Every time?  Dirt.  Dirt and buckets, shovels, rakes, and some small trucks

We have an area in our yard just for their dirt-digging.  And it is amazing watching them play!  They get so wrapped up in their play while they are learning so much.  They’re actively learning about nature.  They are improving their fine motor skills as they pick rocks out of the dirt.  Hand muscles are being strengthened as they are digging and raking.  Hand-eye coordination is being improved while they scoop dirt into buckets.  They are experimenting with volume as they dump one bucket of dirt into another bucket.  The kids are often working as a team and learning lessons that go along with that to accomplish a common goal, like filling buckets of dirt.  They are using their imagination as they use their little trucks to move the dirt.  One of my favorite things is to watch my kids playing in the dirt. 

It is so good for them, and it is truly a happy spot.  Yes, they get dirty.  We often change clothes before going inside.  And baths are frequently involved, but it is so worth it.

Rules of outdoor play

So what are the rules for outside play?  Almost anything goes!  Of course treating each other and things in the yard respectfully is expected.  We have some specific rules about not touching the grill and lawn equipment that might be out.  We’re lucky enough to have the yard fenced in, but boundaries would be another essential rule that I would implement.

This is the time my kids get to really explore.  And I sit back and let them.  I don’t try to engage in their play.  Rather, I let them decide what they want to do and how they want to do it.  

If you find that your kids get bored outside, that is not only okay, but actually good!  This is where creativity is born and strengthened.  Children will naturally find something to do.  It might take them a little while, or it may take a few outdoor sessions to get better at this, and that is okay.  Children will begin to explore what is around them.  Maybe they watch how an ant is moving.  Maybe they create their own game to play with their siblings.  Providing your kids with time to just be outside and figure out how they want to spend that time is truly a gift. 

What should I do while supervising my children outside?

With all of this time outside, you may be wondering what you should be doing while your kids are playing.  Check out my post here for some ideas! Number three is my new favorite outdoor chore!

How to baby proof outside

Because we are outside, the space will never be 100% babyproof.  That’s where the supervision comes in.  Always check out the space for hazards that could be dangerous for your kids.  You must watch them to make sure they don’t put anything chokable or dangerous in their mouth.  Make sure toys are in working order without broken pieces falling off.  Weather can certainly take a toll on outside toys!  Be sure any toys that are aged for kids older than your own are either not used or used only with your supervision (such as a young toddler trying to climb a ladder on a playset). 

Be aware of bees or other harmful bugs and creatures that could pose a problem.  And of course, make sure the weather is safe for your children.  You can see a helpful temperature chart here, telling when it is more safe to be outside with young children.  Most of this is common sense.  Try to view the play space through the eyes of your small kids, and see what you can do to make it safe for them.  This article has great ideas to help your outdoor space be safe for your children.   

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What can you do outside in bad weather?

If getting outside is a priority for you, there are ways to do this when the weather isn’t great.  Obviously be mindful of dangerous temperatures and conditions.  But it is still possible to get out on most lousy weather days.

As summer comes around, I plan to flip our days a little to stay out of the midday heat.  We will probably head out first thing in the morning for breakfast and play, then head in when it gets too hot.  I’m thinking we’ll return outside after nap until bedtime.

There is plenty to do outside on rainy days, if you’re willing to get wet!  You can read here about some things you can do outside on rainy days!

The cold is definitely my least favorite.  I found myself really avoiding outside when it was cold, but I knew my kids needed to get out, at least for a little.  We began doing a walk everyday between lunchtime and nap.  It was the perfect solution to get some fresh air.  It also helped my kids to nap better!

When it snows, I do get the kids outside to play and experience snow.  I love it during the first snow of the year.  After that, I’d rather watch it from my couch.  But I know it’s important for them.  It only snows occasionally, so it is a big deal.  They don’t get to experience it often.  So I take them out in the snow, usually for shorter periods of time, or at least for some walks.

How to get outside without a backyard

If a backyard space is not an option for you, consider these alternatives:

  • front porch
  • driveway
  • park
  • grassy common area
  • balcony or rooftop

You can read here about some great outdoor activities if you don’t have a backyard!

When can a newborn go outside?

Your newborn can go outside the day you come home from the hospital! Of course, this is assuming the temperatures are favorable and there aren’t any major weather incidents. As long as your baby is dressed appropriately for the weather, your baby can be outside.  

You can hold or wear your baby outside. You can also use a travel bassinet so your baby can lay flat. ProTip- a cover from your changing table mat will fit over top most travel bassinets to keep bugs and some sun away from your baby.

As your baby gets a little older, a soft blanket outside with a few toys is perfect!  You can read further about the benefits and logistics of getting babies outside over here!

Outside bag

When I was pregnant with my third and my two kids were just two and under, I felt like I was packing for the beach when I was just trying to get out back.  I embraced it and began using our “outside bag.”  It always has a picnic blanket in there that I use for the baby to lay on. I keep a few baby toys, diapers and sunscreen in it as well.  When we head inside, I’ll collect all snack cups, water bottles and anything else that needs to go inside and put it in the bag for a quick clean up.  Having this bag ready to go is such a help!

How do I have my kids eat outside?

I absolutely love and prefer to do snacks and meals outside with my young children.  Mostly, because it just feels like a really relaxed time.  But also, no mess!  Any crumbs that inevitably fall are just not my problem.  And with three tiny people who are still learning to eat, this is huge for me!

The kids will typically eat at their little picnic table in the yard.  We will occasionally throw down a blanket and do a picnic.  Sometimes they like to take their little chairs and sit in a different spot to eat.  We will also eat on the front porch on rainy days.

Certain foods I avoid outside.  When the bees are more active, I will do just peanut butter sandwiches rather than PB&J.  I also avoid fruit outside for the same reason.  I love doing crackers outdoors because of the huge mess they can make with crumbs.  Crackers have recently become an outdoor-only snack!

We only drink water outside, usually using their water bottles.  I try to keep it simple.  I don’t want to worry about the milk getting warm or ants crawling into juice cups.  My rule for their water bottles is that they are only to use them for drinking.  It’s not play water.  As the weather gets warmer, I’ll provide play water for them, usually in their water table.

Sometimes my kids get distracted and want to play during an outdoor mealtime.  I want them to sit and eat, but sometimes I am more relaxed about it.  If it’s starting to get a little out of hand, I’ll let them know that their plates are going inside in about five minutes.  They’re not obligated to eat anymore, but they should sit down and eat more now, if they are still hungry.  This usually seems to work.

What outdoor clothing do we need for play?

I don’t believe having lots of outside toys is necessary for a good experience. However, it is important to have the right outdoor gear to wear, so you can get outside more often.  Rain boots and raincoats for you and your kids will get you outside on those soggy days. Warm winter coats, snow pants and boots, hats and mittens will be needed for the snow. Don’t forget hats and sunscreen for those sunny days, as well!

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Conclusion

If getting your kids outside is a priority for you, you can make it happen in just about any kind of weather! Develop systems that work for you to help you and your children to head outside!

Related

Outdoor Chores: 21 Ways to be Productive (While the Kids are Playing)

10 Fun Things to do in the Rain: End the Rainy Day Boredom

Babies outdoors: When can newborns go outside, and is it worth it?

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2 thoughts on “Outdoor Play Made Easy: How to get out there with your kids (and why you should)”

  1. Thank you for explaining how playing outdoors can make children creative since they get to explore and interact with what’s around them. My husband loves our nephew so we’re looking for outdoor playground equipment to build a playground for him with my sister. She’s a single mom so she needs all the help she can get to give her kid the best there is.

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