Everybody outside!

Summer has arrived! It’s the ideal time to send your kids outside to play. You won’t find a better playground than the great outdoors to boost their fitness, self-confidence, and sense of independence.


At one with nature

Complete with parks, trees, dirt, sand, water, and more, the great outdoors is fully equipped to keep your little ones entertained. Whatever the weather, parents have everything to gain by taking their kids outside to play.

By Julie Leduc

Complete with parks, trees, dirt, sand, water, and more, the great outdoors is fully equipped to keep your little ones entertained. Whatever the weather, parents have everything to gain by taking their kids outside to play.

Children need to play outdoors. What’s more, children are more active when they’re outside than when they’re indoors. Fresh air makes them want to run, jump, leap, and climb—movements that not only strengthen their motor skills, but also help them understand their bodies.

Just ask Émilie, mother of 8-year-old Béatrice and 5-year-old twins PaulÉmile and Héloïse. “My kids have more space to move when they play outside. They love getting to run around and shout!”

Spending time outdoors also helps prevent kids from spending an unhealthy amount of time in front of screens. In addition, a recent study of children aged 4 to 7 found that outdoor playtime is good for their cognitive development and may even prevent or reduce symptoms of hyperactivity.

New ways to move

“Being in nature can also get children moving in different ways,” says Mathieu Point, an educational studies professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “Walking on uneven ground, for example, builds strength and balance.” So does climbing rocks or walking along a log.

Sylvie Gervais, founder of the co-op organization Enfant nature, routinely takes daycare groups on nature outings. “I’m always surprised by how quickly their endurance improves. After just a few weeks, they can walk a distance equivalent to their age in years. A 4-year-old, for instance, can walk four kilometres while thinking of it as playtime!”

Benoît, father of 2-year-old Louis and 5-year-old Jeanne, watched his son make impressive strides in the great outdoors. “Last winter, I would often join my daughter’s daycare group on nature walks as part of the Grandir en forêt outdoor education program,” he says. “Louis, who was just 20 months old, came with us. He walked through the snow to stay with the group. In terms of motor skills, he made a lot of progress. He’s quick and steady on his feet. I’m going to have to take up jogging just to keep up with him!”

Explore, observe, create

According to Point, playing outdoors opens up a whole world of stimulating experiences for a child. “When kids are outside, they can observe insects and small animals, for example, discover the texture of trees and the scent of leaves,” he explains. “This increases their sense of curiosity and can get them to start talking more and asking questions. In other words, contact with nature even helps improve learning and language skills.”

It gets better: with so much to see and do outdoors, there’s no need to bring toys or supplies. “We often go for walks by the river near our house,” says Émilie. “The kids have a great time just throwing rocks in the water or collecting sticks.” According to MariePierre Lajoie, head of the Les Petits Explorateurs nature education program at the Joujouthèque Basse-Ville in Quebec City, children get very creative when they play outside.

“A stick that starts out as a broom might eventually become a fork or magic wand.” Lajoie adds that playing with objects they find in nature also allows toddlers to hone their fine motor skills. She remembers seeing a little boy use two sticks as chopsticks to “eat” a plant while playing restaurant. “I couldn’t have come up with a better activity myself for practising fine motor skills!”

Good for the mind and body

Playing outdoors is also known to have numerous health benefits. Since children are more active when they’re outside, outdoor play improves their fitness and lowers the risk of weight problems. In addition, it encourages them to look at things in the distance, which is good for their overall eyesight. Sunlight is also believed to help prevent nearsightedness.

When children play outside, they experience a greater sense of freedom.

Moving more also improves quality of sleep, which has a positive effect on a child’s mood. “Studies have even shown that contact with nature creates a general sense of well-being,” says Point. “It alleviates tension and makes it easier to focus and pay attention in other situations.” Émilie has noticed that her kids are calmer when they come back in the house after playing outside. “They tend to play quieter games.”

Parents, too, have plenty to gain. “I love being outside,” says Benoît. “It puts me in a good mood. My kids can sense it. We end up having a great time, and it brings us closer together!”

Open-air educational services

Regions throughout Quebec are experimenting with open-air educational childcare services. The children play, eat, and sometimes even take their naps in the open air, spending half or full days outside all year round. This routine is believed to provide countless benefits for the kids, including less stress, less conflict, more teamwork, and enhanced creativity.

The importance of free play and healthy risk

Many of your childhood memories may involve playing outside, but children now spend much of their time indoors. What has changed, and why it is important to bring back the joy of free play outdoors?

Many of your childhood memories may involve playing outside, but children now spend much of their time indoors. What has changed, and why it is important to bring back the joy of free play outdoors?

According to kinesiologist Bruno Durand, the culture of helicopter parenting is one of the reasons why kids no longer spend as much time playing outside. “Parents are scared something bad will happen to their kids outside: they’ll get hurt, get in an accident, or, even worse, get kidnapped,” says Durand. “These fears are irrational—society is safer than it ever has been. But when something rare, like a kidnapping, occurs, it immediately becomes front-page news, giving some parents the impression that it’s dangerous to go outside. That puts a major damper on the idea of playing outdoors.”

Nowadays, families also tend to have packed schedules, leaving kids with less free time. What’s more, many parents believe they have to structure their child’s playtime or sign them up for activities so they’ll develop properly. They’re wrong! In Durand’s opinion, outdoor playtime should be a priority. It allows kids to use their imagination and choose and organize their own games, all of which is good for their development.

Jessica, for example, always lets her kids—2-year-old Mathilde and 4-year-old Rémi—play outside after daycare. “We spend 20 to 45 minutes in the yard,” she says. “I’m always close by, but I let them decide what they want to do. They love filling buckets with dirt and water to make mud soup.”

“When kids get to choose what games they play, with whom, and by what rules, they get to know themselves better,” says Mathieu Point, an educational studies professor at the Université du Quebec à Trois-Rivières. They discover their likes and dislikes and what they enjoy doing. Research also shows that children are more active when engaged in free play.

This type of play allows them to practise decision-making skills, build their confidence, and become more independent. Tu Huynh, Rémi and Mathilde’s father, is still amazed by how resourceful and creative his son is when he plays in the yard. “He knows where everything is, makes up games, and rarely asks for help,” he says.

It’s also important to encourage contact with nature, whatever the season. Playing in a variety of outdoor settings (in the snow, in piles of leaves, on the grass, in the woods, by a lake, etc.) gives children the opportunity to explore new things and move their bodies in all sorts of ways.

And when it’s not possible to go outside, you can bring nature indoors, for example, by using potted plants that your little one can help you maintain. You can also give them natural materials you’ve collected during your outings (e.g., pebbles and pinecones) and let them invent their own games.

Learning to take risks

When children play outside, activities such as climbing rocks and trees or sticking their hands in the mud allow them to develop their taste for adventure and discovery. Some parents’ first instinct is to say, “Be careful, you’ll hurt yourself!”; “Don’t do that, you’ll get dirty!”; or “No, that’s dangerous!” But parents should learn to bite their tongues.

Children actually benefit from risky play. Risk-taking lets them challenge themselves and discover what they’re capable of. It’s also a great way to develop their self-confidence.

How to encourage risky play

Specialists say that the key is to trust your child. “Kids know what risks they can take,” says Sylvie Gervais, founder of the coop organization Enfant nature. “A child will climb a rock only if they know how to get back down. And if they start climbing a tree, it’s because they can.”

Durand suggests that parents change their habits. “Observe, don’t interfere,” he says. “Watch your child as they move around and explore with care. This will help you trust them more.” Of course, Durand adds, you have to know the difference between risk and danger.

During free play, children must be given enough time to invent their game, flesh it out, and then put an end to it themselves.

“A risk is a challenge that your child may or may not choose to take, such as jumping off a rock instead of climbing down on their hands and knees,” he explains. “A danger is something your child isn’t aware of, such as a metal pipe sticking out of a structure.” It’s important for parents to make sure their children are not exposed to any dangers. But once the coast is clear, they should stand aside and let their kids do their own exploring.

Parents also need to accept that their kids are going to get dirty sometimes and get the odd scratch or bruise. According to the experts we spoke with, it’s not a big deal. Children will naturally do an about-face if they find themselves faced with too big a challenge.

However, parents can still be there to help when needed. For example, you can hold their hand, gently encourage them, or just stay close. Safety still needs to stay foremost in your mind. It’s all about finding the right balance between your child’s comfort level and your own.

“It’s not always easy, but I’m trying to be less protective,” says Émilie, mother of three. “My daughter is 5 and loves climbing trees. By watching her, I’ve learned that she knows her own limits. When she can’t go any higher, she’ll climb down.”

Émilie notes with pride that she says “Be careful!” less and less often. “I trust them. I even refuse to help them,” she says. “If my kids ask to hold my hand while they climb a tree or rock, I say no. If they can’t do it alone, it’s because they aren’t ready yet.” Durand believes this is a healthy attitude. “Children who always get help and don’t have the chance to explore on their own will get hurt more often when they’re older, because they don’t know their own physical limits.”

Playing it too safe?

Jungle gyms must conform to a number of safety standards to prevent falls and other accidents. They present less of a challenge than natural elements, so children get bored quickly. Toddlers are actually more active when playing with items such as balls and hoops than when climbing on jungle gyms. “Jungle gyms do, however, have the advantage of helping children make friends,” says educational studies professor Mathieu Point. For instance, children will often hang out on top of or under playground equipment when playing restaurant or other role-playing games.
Things to keep in mind
  • Children are more active when they play outside.
  • Letting children play freely develops their autonomy and their confidence.
  • Children need to take risks when playing to learn their limits and explore their physical capabilities.
Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, July–August 2018
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Caroline Bouchard, Full Professor, Department of Educational Studies, Université Laval

Updated: September 2023



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Photos: gettyimages/imgorthand, Maxim Morin, and gettyimages/bigandt_photography