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UW Combined Fund Drive

July 25, 2023

Why playing outdoors is important for kids

We all generally know why being outdoors is healthy for everyone, but we might not be able to articulate why. Here’s why it’s so important for us, but especially for the benefit of kids, to spend time outdoors as much as possible.

Fresh air

It’s the feeling of opening your windows on the first warm day of spring. It’s the invigorating deep breaths you can take while going on a hike in the woods. Breathing fresh air is undeniably better than breathing air from inside of a building or house—but why?

First, the air quality is probably better. The EPA says that generally, indoor air has the potential to be more polluted than outdoor air. This could be due to our heating and cooling systems, things we burn (oil, gas, tobacco, etc.), and the materials our structures are made of.

Secondly, fresh air can help raise our serotonin levels. Changes in serotonin levels are typically associated with anxiety and depression. On the other hand, serotonin levels can be positively affected by oxygen. And guess where we can get more oxygen? That’s right—outside.

Physical activity

Physical activity can help kids cope with stress. Their little bodies contain so much energy and it will come out one way or another. Experts recommend that kids get at least 1 hour of physical activity every day. Regular physical activity can contribute to, but isn’t limited to:

  • Healthy growth and development
  • Better self-esteem
  • Stronger bones, muscles and joints
  • Better posture and balance
  • A stronger heart
  • A healthier weight range
  • Learning new skills while having fun
  • Better focus and concentration

Stimulation without a screen

All parents and caregivers can agree that if a child spends too much time in front of a screen, they can be overstimulated and have the potential to exhibit wild behavior. However, not all stimulation is created equal. Young kids actually need stimulation to develop critical neural networks in the brain.

So where can such stimulation be found? You guessed it—outside. Natural elements provide open-ended possibilities of play for kids and get their imaginations blooming with ideas.

Imagination + creativity

With less human-made objects or toys, being outdoors gives kids a blank slate for what play is. There aren’t many prompts for what something should be, and therefore is a great environment for kids to grow in their imagination, and therefore creativity. The ability to be creative is foundational to success in any area of life. Not only is it important for self-expression and emotional intelligence, but it also supports the creation of new ideas and critical thinking.

Additionally, psychologists say that when kids engage in make-believe play, they expand their capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When thinking about raising the future leaders of our communities, these qualities are critical.

Attention spans

The outdoor environment doesn’t demand much from kids (and adults) other than to just be. There are no questions being asked, or specific activities that require a concentrated focus. Nature is simply existing and you can exist right along with it.

Researchers have found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who take a 20-minute walk in a park can improve their symptoms as effectively as if they took a dose of prescription stimulant medication. The restoring effects of being outside gives the brain time to rest and find calm.

Reprinted from the SitterCity parent blog, a backup care program housed in UW WorkLife.


Consider making a one-time contribution or setting up payroll deduction to one of our UWCFD member organizations working to make outdoor recreation accessible and equitable for all:

Washington Trails Association (charity code 0315053): Washington Trails Association’s mission is to preserve, enhance, and promote hiking opportunities in Washington state through collaboration.

The Mountaineers (charity code 1481321) is a nonprofit outdoor education, recreation and conservation organization whose mission is to enrich the community by helping people explore, conserve, learn about and enjoy the lands and waters of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Washington Wild (charity code 315056): Washington Wild protects and restores wild lands and waters in Washington state through advocacy, education, and civic engagement.

Washington State Parks (charity code 0315070): The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission cares for Washington’s most treasured lands, waters, and historic places. State parks connect all Washingtonians to their diverse natural and cultural heritage and provide memorable recreational and educational experiences that enhance their lives.

Outdoors for All (charity code 0320849): enriches the quality of life for more than 2,000 children and adults with disabilities per year through year-round outdoor recreational activities. Outdoors for All is transforming the lives of more than 2,000 individuals with disabilities each year.

the Service Board (charity code 1478661): empowers youth to overcome obstacles and build strong community through snowboarding, public service, and a curriculum of social justice.

Contributed by Nicole Reeve-Parker