The numbers tell a solemn story. American children play outside less now than at any other time in our nation’s history. Time spent playing outdoors has decreased for all children, but especially for females and for minorities. This lifestyle change has contributed to increasing health risks as children display more obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than in previous generations.
When the days get shorter and the temperature plummets, parents are even less likely to send their kids outside to play. But some recent research indicates that all year long—and especially during the winter—outdoor play is really helpful for kids.
Outdoor play boosts children’s health. At least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity outdoors every day controls weight, reduces blood pressure, raises HDL (“good” cholesterol), and reduces diabetes and some cancers in children.
Young children learn through their senses. Experiencing the wind blowing, the wetness of rain drops and the chill of the cold air teaches children about the reality of winter in a way that television and books never could. They hear the crunch of boots on snow, smell the needles from a pine tree and taste the crystal freshness of a snow flake caught on their tongues.
Finally, children’s outdoor play promotes mental health. The outdoor light stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain which regulates the “biological clock.” This gland also serves a vital function for the immune system and generally makes us feel happier.
Many parents and educators have discovered that playing outside does wonders for a child’s behavior. President Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that, “I believe that those boys who take part in rough hard play outside of school will not find any need for horse-play in school.” Teachers know that when kids play hard at recess, they learn better back in the classroom.
Winter outdoor play involves more work for parents as they have to bundle kids up and then dry out those coats and mittens later. But staying inside for much of the year leads to a decline in physical and mental health as well as learning for kids. Winter play offers its own unique brand of joy and learning.