Active Outdoor Play

Children of all ages and abilities can enjoy and benefit from playing outdoors in all but the most extreme weather.  Studies show that regular physical activity helps children be fit and healthy, improves self-esteem, and decreases the risk of illnesses like heart disease and stroke later in life. Active outdoor play enhances children’s senses of smell, touch, and sight. It also helps children develop their sense of motion in space. When children play outdoors they have less time for sedentary activities like screen time. Children can cooperate, help, share and solve problems with other children when playing together. 

When children play outside, they have time to use their imaginations, learn about nature (cognitive development), build small and large muscles (fine/gross motor development), and develop social skills (socioemotional development). 

Guidelines for Daily Active Play

     Infants

  • Spend time outside 2-3 times per day, as tolerated, weather permitting.
  • Have supervised tummy time when awake.

    Toddlers

  • Play outside 2-3 times for a total of 60-90 minutes each day, weather permitting.
  • Get 60-90 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day (indoors and/or outdoors),including adult lead activities.

    Preschoolers

  • Play outside 2-3 times for a total of 60-90 minutes each day, weather permitting.
  • Get 90-120 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day (indoors and/or outdoors), including adult lead activities.

Include children with chronic health conditions and disabilities in outdoor play activities. Like all children, they will receive positive benefits from exercise and exploration. Some activities may need to be modified or adapted.

Active outdoor play


Staff and children feel refreshed when they breathe fresh air. Taking children outdoors every day, even during winter, is a healthy part of their schedule. It is safe when clothing is appropriate. Keep the following in mind:

  • Know that germs can cause illnesses. Cold weather doesn’t cause diseases— germs do! Viruses commonly cause colds, sore throats, and other respiratory infections.  
  • Maximize outside time. Being outside reduces the amount of time germs spread between people in small, overheated, and/or poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
  • Check weather conditions. Refer to the Child Care Weather Watch poster for temperatures suitable for outdoor play.
  • Dress children in layers when it is cold. Refer to Child Care Aware’s guide to dressing children in three layers.
  • Use sunscreen. Sunscreen prevents sunburn and decrease risks of developing skin cancer. Sun damage can occur whether it’s sunny or cloudy.
  • Prevent injury from slips and falls. Wipe down wet outdoor equipment. Make sure climbing equipment is placed over and surrounded by a shock-absorbing surface. Keep pavement clear of sand, leaves, and toys that are not in use.
  • Be careful around water. Toddlers require constant supervision when they play around water. It takes little time and only a few inches of water for a puddle to become a drowning hazard.

Spending time outdoors is good for everyone's health.  Have fun and enjoy yourself!

Resources

      
American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education. CFOC Standards Online Database. Aurora, CO; National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education; 2020 Standards. Chapter 3.1.3.1 , Chapter 3.1.3.2, and Appendix S: Physical Activity: How much is Needed?

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2019).  Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play is Essential for Healthy Development at https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2019/outdoor-play-is-essential

Updated February 2023, UCSF California Childcare Health Program

This article was updated with funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation.

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