Kids need outdoor free play in nature spaces- here's why

Cardiovascular activity supports a functioning immune system and is of great importance for keeping children healthy. Children need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, and one way to achieve these guidelines is through outdoor free play in nature. It's a a wonderful setting for fitting in physical exercise, social connection, and nature connection. 

Thinking about taking your kids play time outdoors and leaving the toys behind? Outdoor free play in nature settings is a health-supporting activity that is a great activity choice for both young and older children. Read on to learn a few benefits of outdoor free play for children's physical, social, and emotional development, and how physical activity is an indispensable contributor to well-being.


Children should be encouraged to move freely outdoors for their physical and mental health. Here's why outdoor free play in nature spaces is beneficial for your little one:


1. Outdoor free play provides a rich environment for movement skills, curiosity, and imagination.

According to the World Health Organization, children and adolescents 5-17 years of age need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. This means running, jogging, cycling, jumping, and swimming; the heart-pumping activities that may cause your child to break a sweat! Children also need muscle-strengthening exercises at least 3 times per week (squats, push-ups, climbing playground monkey bars, lunges, pulling a rope, lifting objects etc.). Cardiovascular activity supports a functioning immune system by revving up the blood and lymph flow, which increases the number of immune cells flowing in our bodies.  By taking the kids outdoors for free unstructured play, children have the opportunity to support their immune systems through physical movement, and also develop gross motor skills by running, jumping, climbing, and rolling. Outdoor play also provides toddlers and younger children with fine motor skill development by picking up items they find such as pine cones, twigs, and pebbles. 

Outdoor, unstructured free play provides children with a sprawling space to play a little harder and run faster, as it provides more varied space to explore, be curious, and use their imaginations. Green spaces provide plenty of sensory stimulation- wildlife to listen to and spot, different textures to touch such as flowers, trees, and grass, and rocks, and the chance to create play out of what is around-sticks, pebbles, pine cones, leaves, and other items you find and transform them into forts, art work, or part of your imaginary play experience. 

A bonus of outdoor nature play is these positive play experiences may potentially increase the likelihood of having positive social connections with nature, which can translate to being more environmentally friendly as your child develops. 

2. Outdoor free play is beneficial for practicing risk assessment and social development. 

Free play is a fantastic opportunity for children to develop and practice multiple skills such as risk assessments, kids may need to ask themselves- 'Am I sturdy walking across this log? Can I climb to the next branch of the tree safely with a strong grip?". This type of play can be a little challenging and gives children an opportunity to overcome themselves when things are tricky. They can also use their imagination and creativity for problem-solving, practice co-operating with others, practice teamwork, and build both social and leadership skills while connecting with other playmates. 

3. Outdoor free play builds social emotional skills and physical activity and exercise can be used as a tool to manage stress. 

 Humans are social creatures, and social connectedness is a critical factor in our well-being and survival. Studies show that persons with strong community supports may live longer. In relation to children, they benefit from free play and learn appropriate pro-social behaviours with other children. The natural environment offers ideal setting for exploration and is ripe for children to use their imagination, curiosity, and creativity to play. Another benefit of playing outdoors is the chance to absorb vitamin D which supports the immune system. Further, exposure to daylight helps our body's circadian rhythms to support healthy sleep, and who doesn't want their little one to have a good nights sleep?

Children should have access to physical activity opportunities as it is indispensable to health development; supporting brain functioning, motor development, stress reduction, and self-esteem. During the Corona-19 pandemic, physical activity was shown to support adolescents' mental health and mitigate infection fear (Wright, Williams & Veldhuijzen van Zanten, 2021). One study analyzed online surveys from 165 teenagers in the UK and identified physical activity as a strong predictor of better mental health when fear and infection stress was high. The researchers stated, “it is possible that physical activity is also used by adolescents as a way to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 Coronavirus and to have a sense of control over their health” (Wright, Williams & Veldhuijzen van Zanten, 2021, p.7). Slovenia rigorously encouraged children and families to be physically active during Covid-19. Slovenia created a qualified task force to promote physical activity while in lockdown (Jurak et al., 2021). Also a rare feat, Slovenia meets WHO physical activity guidelines and meets several policy recommendations for physical activity across all sectors, and they have a robust nationwide monitoring system for physical activity.

Recent research suggests that physical exercise may relieve acute depression and anxiety symptoms via the elevation of biochemicals such as endorphins which elevate mood and feelings of relaxation, reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (generally speaking it is not health-supporting to have chronically elevated stress hormones), and increased mental mastery, feelings of self-control and accomplishment. In relation to children, it is beneficial for children to feel they have a sense of control and accomplishment in parts of their daily lives, and finishing a workout or sports activity can instill a sense of control, support self-esteem, and be a healthy outlet when feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. 

Nature spaces in particular have been shown to help with impulse control and may allow children feel more relaxed after time spent in nature. This may be related to Kaplan & Kaplan's ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (ART), which suggests that natural environments provide a natural awe and fascination. By spending time outdoors in natural spaces and taking in the  ‘effortless, soft-fascination’ multi-sensory experience of nature, it allows parts of our mind to recover from overstimulation attributed to by modern urban environments. 

When your little one has been indoors all day and seems a little grumpy, sometimes a brief walk outdoors is all they need to elevate their moods, or a quick trip to the playground to blow off some steam. Family walks are a great way to practice healthy lifestyle habits which set the foundation for future physical activity behaviour. 

A few tips:

  • Encourage your children or students to be consistently physically active and try taking play time outdoors. Challenge kids to create their own play experiences and encourage them to use what they find in their play. 

  • Lead by example: show your children how important physical activity is by exercising. Modeling the healthy behaviour helps your children understand this is encouraged behaviour.

  • For a family activity- go on a nature walk and create a scavenger hunt. 

  • Find recreational clubs with after school or weekend programs to get your children moving. You may also find outdoor nature day camps which encourage free play and nature connections. Depending on the household income, some cities and recreation groups offer assistance with program costs. Local public health agencies should provide information on existing subsidy opportunities, and promote programs with coverage for low-income households. Local recreation facilities may offer low cost children's programming.



Jurak, Gregor, et al. “A COVID-19 Crisis in Child Physical FITNESS: Creating a Barometric Tool of Public Health Engagement for the Republic of Slovenia.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 5 Mar. 2021,

Wright LJ, Williams SE and Veldhuijzen van Zanten JJCS (2021). Physical Activity Protects Against the Negative Impact of Coronavirus Fear on Adolescent Mental Health and Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front. Psychol. 12:580511. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.580511

WHO (2018), Physical activity factsheets for the 28 European Union member States of the WHO European region, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen.