Unstructured Outdoor Play: Why it's Essential for Your Child's Well-Being

If you’re losing the battle to get your kids outdoors to play, you’re not alone. While our kids’ lives are tightly scheduled with school, sports, and other organized activities, there are plenty of moments throughout the week when your child could—and should—head outside!

If it doesn’t seem like your child has any time, take a step back and re-evaluate your family’s schedule. Jot everything down on a calendar to identify some extra time, or decide if you need to free up some time. Children need unstructured time to play outside where they can run, jump, enjoy nature, and think up their own activities.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that childhood obesity rates in the United States more than doubled in the last four decades. Teachers and health professionals note that children are harder to engage in class, more fidgety, and prone to depression than any time in the past. They don’t get enough time to play actively and they aren’t using their own imaginations to plan their own activities.

Everyone can be a bit obsessed with technology at times—even parents. So make sure you are able to recognize if you have a problem with technology-related obsessions so you can set a good example for your kids.

If left on their own, many kids will choose a screen over active play. Rather than read a book, create a piece of art, or enjoy music, many kids would rather sit for hours in front of a screen. Encourage your kids to get outside to play, experience the beauty and peace of a natural environment, and think up their own ways to spend their time. Unstructured, natural play boasts lots of benefits and is one of the best gifts you can give your children!



Studies using mice have proven that aerobic exercise increases the growth of brain cells. It also improves performance in learning tasks involving memory. When time for free play is added into a school day, children are better able to focus and are freer of fidgety behaviors.

Math, problem-solving, and reading skills improve when kids have enough time to play during the day. Free play, in which kids create their own story lines and activities, helps with creative thinking as they solve academic problems.

Overall Health

Children need at least sixty minutes of moderate physical activity each day. While they may get some of that in structured physical education classes or team sports, they benefit in a different way when they run, jump, and climb without adult instruction. Active play builds strong bones and raises fitness levels. It allows children to expel some energy, burn excess calories, and build independent thinking skills.

When allowed adequate time to play in an unrestricted way, children are better able to settle down in classroom situations, are freer of stress, less irritable, and display more positive attitudes.

Outdoor play also provides natural Vitamin D which is essential for good health and contributes to a positive mental attitude.

Social Skills

When children play independently they learn valuable social skills. They learn to share equipment or materials, how to work cooperatively in accomplishing a task, and how to use problem-resolution skills when conflicts arise. There is great value for children in learning to solve problems without adult intervention.

Old-fashioned play—before screens—consisted of tearing around the neighborhood with friends as well as some quiet reflection time. Make sure to encourage both types of outside play. Providing time for our children to play outside in natural settings will continue to be a challenge, but it’s one worth tackling!