Outdoor Play for Toddlers: 5 Amazing Benefits (You’ve Never Heard Before)

Daylight Saving Time is back, I’ve got a crocus blooming, my daffodil leaves are poking up a few inches from the soil, and the local park is getting more visitors than it has in quite awhile. It’s (almost) spring, and it’s time to end winter hibernation and get the kids out of the house on a regular basis. Outdoor play for toddlers is important any time of the year, but now that it’s not SO cold (at least here in the north), let’s talk about some of the amazing and lesser-known benefits of getting motivated to take our kids outside!

My husband and I have decided to set a concrete goal this year, and we’re aiming to…
Give our kids more opportunities for extended outdoor play.

6 Reasons (You didn't already know) that outdoor play is awesome for kids | Benefits of outdoor play for toddlers Disciple MamaIn fact, we’re setting the bar really high (high for us, anyway), and we’re planning to log 1000 hours outside in 2020.

Think we’re crazy? Maybe a little.

Here’s the thing: it’s been a loooong winter here in Southwest Michigan. Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. Seriously. I lived in SoCal for 6 years and longed for snow and ice every winter (and more than a few times in the summer). A snowy day is a happy day for me. A sunny day with snow glistening on the ground? Even better. I love sledding, snowboarding (though I haven’t done it in a long time), and throwing snowballs. I love drinking hot chocolate to warm up after a hike in a snowy wood. I love winter.

But, as my husband will attest, I get grouchy when winter doesn’t really show up in all its snowy glory.

This winter? We’ve had a couple of decent snow falls, but we’ve had all these strange warmups that keep melting the snow after only a day or two, leaving us with a brown, soggy mess most of the time. Where I come from, it’s called “mud season” and it’s supposed to be limited to April. It’s my least favorite time of the year. It’s cold, wet, messy, and grey. And it’s lasted. all. winter. this year.

Why am I telling you this? Well, other than the fact that my husband is probably tired of hearing me disparage our beloved Michigan winter, I just haven’t been making outdoor play a priority. Sure, when we actually have snow (and it’s not dangerously cold) we head straight for our favorite sledding hill and have a glorious time. But, when it’s muddy and cold? I stay inside and the kids stay with me. It’s just so much effort to get all those layers on and take them off again. And for what?

As it turns out, I should be putting in the effort for a lot of really great reasons. Recent research by Nemours says that children should be outside at least 60-90 minutes each day.

Benefits of outdoor play for toddlers

I know you already know all of the usual reasons people cite for why it’s important for kids to get outside.  These include fresh air (read about the crazy high levels of air pollution inside our homes at ul.com), increased exercise-which increases heart health and decreases obesity rates as well as risk for Type I diabetes (find facts here: NHPS). And, those are just the physical benefits!

You’re probably also aware of plenty of mental benefits of outdoor play, too. Children focus better when they get more outdoor play (this includes children diagnosed with ADHD). Increased levels of sunlight decrease stress and risk for depression.

Yeah, you’ve heard it all before. But there are some lesser known (but still GREAT) reasons to increase outdoor play for toddlers.

Preschooler running behind a woman on a beach- Benefits of outdoor play for toddlers and preschoolers | Disciple Mama

You may not have heard of these benefits of outdoor play for toddlers and preschoolers

Here are some lesser-known benefits of encouraging young children to play outside more, starting with the physical benefits.

Physical Benefits of Outdoor Play for Toddlers

Spending time playing outdoors is very beneficial for toddlers and preschoolers. Let’s look at some of the lesser-known reasons why!

1. Outdoor play leads to better quality sleep.

Of all people, parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers know how important sleep is. It’s precious to all of us! We just feel better with the right amount of sleep.

Good sleep quality helps our kids learn, grow, and behave better.

Well, according to the Green Time for Sleep Time Report by the National Wildlife Federation, outdoor play helps our kids (and us) get better sleep!

First, the natural light kids get from playing outside in the morning helps them set their internal “sleep clocks” to get a better night’s sleep.

Also, outdoor exercise is often more vigorous than indoor exercise, so results in more sleep benefits.

2. Time playing outside boosts levels of vitamin D.

Did you know that about 70% of young people (ages 1-21) have insufficient levels of vitamin D in their blood? It’s sad, but true–americanbonehealth.org has the facts. The good news? Spending time outside can help!

3. Playing outdoors may prevent myopia.

More time playing outdoors can prevent nearsightedness in children, according to Acta Opthalmologica. Crazy, right?

Mental Benefits of Outdoor Play for Toddlers

A toddler boy walking in the woods, holding a stick- outdoor play for toddlers | Disciple MamaThe advantages of playing outside aren’t limited to physical benefits. It’s also great for our kids’ brains.

4. Playing outside improves focus, attention span, and short term memory.

Children who play outside a lot are more likely to stick with tasks longer than kids who don’t. According to Sanford Health News, there is also evidence that children with ADHD focus more successfully after spending time outdoors. My kids don’t have ADHD (at least not that I know of), and they can focus better after a good hard play outside, so my personal opinion is that it works for most kids. It just makes sense that they can sit a little bit better if they’ve had a good chance to get the wiggles out, right?

This study in Norway shows that children from ages 4-7 who had more outdoor time showed consistently performed higher on tests of executive functions like attention and short term memory. Children with more outdoor time also exhibited fewer symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity.

These benefits were strongest in 6-7 year olds with a lot of outdoor time, and benefits were not as clear after children reached school age. However, it shows that plenty of outdoor play at an early age may help kids develop attention and memory skills and prevent development of hyperactivity and inattention symptoms.

5. Outdoor play decreases stress.

According to “Be Out There” by the National Wildlife Federation, Kids’ stress levels fall when they’re out in nature. The higher levels of light reduce risk of depression. Children are less likely to bully others when they have regular outdoor play, and their cooperation skills increase, also.

And so much more!

Outdoor play for toddlers and preschoolers (as well as for older children) is beneficial to their minds, bodies, and spirits. There are studies connecting outdoor play to better academic performance, lower obesity rates, better heart health, higher quality sleep, and so much more. Check out the links to my sources above if you want TONS of good, scientific reasons why our children will benefit from regular outside play.

6. A HUGE (for me, anyway) bonus benefit of outdoor play.

One more lesser-known reason that outdoor play is awesome? It’s a lot easier to keep your house clean when your children are not in it. Tidy up, then send the kids out (it’s good for them!!) and keep the place looking great!


Reaping the benefits of outdoor play?

How does outdoor play benefit your kids? I want to hear about it! Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments.

Keep reading! I think you’ll enjoy:

Screen-Free Parenting: Unplug to Tune-In

Screen-Free Week: A Beginner’s Guide

Wild Discipleship: Camping with Kids