The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. That’s right; on average, children spend fewer than 10 minutes a day outside just to play and use their imaginations. We find that a scary statistic and believe that kids playing outdoors is how life should be. That’s why we’ve come up with some of the best outdoor toys for kids.
It’s sort of appalling to think of how we’ve stolen the outside time of children these days.
No, we’ve not necessarily done it intentionally; we’ve done it in the name of wanting the best for them, of course.
We want the best piano lessons and the best sports programs and the best school systems and the best dance hall because they’re our children and what parent doesn’t want the best for their child?
The problem is that in wanting the best for our children, we seem to have veered off course somewhere and lost sight of the fact that we actually have it for them–often right in our very own back yards! There are SO many benefits to playing outside, particularly when it gets more and more difficult for us to avoid the necessity of screen time for various reasons.
And because our kids are growing up in such a digital world, it’s up to us to make sure they get as much outdoor play as they can. Why? It’s really what’s best for them, and we all want that!
How Outdoor Play Benefits Children
It never ceases to amaze us at how much research supports the need for children to have unstructured outdoor playtime, and yet, it seems like schools look at that research and say, “Thanks, we’re taking a hard pass anyway.” But there are so many benefits to outdoor play for kids, and many of them actually translate into better success in school environments and testing too!
Unstructured outdoor play is good for kids first and foremost because it helps them be healthier. There’s no question that when kids are outside running, jumping, lifting, pulling, throwing, carrying, digging and exploring, they’re developing better muscle tone, burning calories and strengthening their bones. When they’re outside, they’re taking in more Vitamin D, which research shows to better for their immunity, their moods, their propensity to develop chronic disease and more The American Academy of Pediatrics says that many children have Vitamin D deficiencies (we love these supplements to help that when getting sunshine is just not as easy to do). Playing outside gives our kids better health, and better motor skills. Those motor skills mean better coordination and development–in everything from throwing a great spiral pass to being an incredible reader or writer in 3rd grade. It’s true–when children don’t take in information from ALL of their senses (and not just hearing and sight in front of a screen), they miss out on so many sensory skill-building opportunities. This can adversely impact their sensory systems, their perceptual abilities and more–and this translates into poorer school behavior and performance too.
Outdoor play for kids is important because it also helps them learn so many different things–both cognitively and socially/emotionally. When they’re outside with the world in front of them to learn and explore, they are able to take the opportunity to follow what they’re interested in, making their learning more meaningful. When they play with their friends, either using made-up games or with the best outdoor toys for kids, they’re learning how to interact with one another, how to take turns, how to share, how to encourage, how to be a good listener, how to communicate and so much more. When they’re outside doing this, the fresh air reduces their stress levels and even heated games of dodgeball don’t get so heated as they may indoors.
And, when children are encouraged to play outdoors, they learn how to self-direct and control their behaviors because they see the immediate impact when they don’t. Playing outside can give them practice with increasing their attention spans, and they can work a lot of their energy and impulsivity out in the great outdoors. When kids get to play outside and explore what’s interesting to them, they’re more inclined to stay with that task, again because it’s a meaningful activity. This is great practice for kids to develop better attention spans for those times when they simply are forced to sit and focus for extended periods (ahem, school).
Kids who play outside more also work on building better moods, happiness and immunity. The pineal gland is an important part of our brain that keeps us feeling happier and our immune system running along swimmingly. It’s stimulated by outdoor light, and so the more, the better we feel. When our kids are outdoors, they gain an appreciation for nature and the environment because they learn about how being in it makes them so happy. Encouraging our kids to play outdoors as much as they can is good for the environment in that way, as we’re essentially creating little eco-warriors through play.
The Eyes Don’t Lie
Did you know kids who spend more outdoor time show less likelihood of developing nearsightedness, or myopia? Myopia means your child has a hard time seeing things far away, and studies show that when we actually ‘prescribe’ more outdoor play, we are very likely lessening the chance of the development of myopia. Sure, heredity plays a huge part in that, but research suggests that even an extra 40 minutes of outdoor time can help curb the development of myopia.
Why might that be? We spoke with Dr. Bryce Appelbaum with Appelbaum Vision in Bethesda, Maryland. ‘Dr. Bryce’ is a board-certified Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development and a leading pediatric optometrist who specializes in vision therapy and rehabilitation. He told us that many of our children’s functional vision problems are the result of them not developing the appropriate visual skills and abilities they need to meet visual demands that are placed on them (for instance, hours and hours of near work in schools, or screen time that requires near work and different vision processing systems).
Dr. Bryce says that not only can we start seeing maladaptations like visual fatigue, headaches, eyestrain and behavior changes when our kids’ visual systems are tasked too much, but classwork performance can and will suffer too. One answer? Dr. Bryce STRONGLY recommends that time spent outdoors equals (or ideally, according to Dr. Bryce, exceeds) time spent on screens. This helps develop motor development as well as executive functioning skill-building.
There’s More To It Than Just Going Outside
The reality is that while some of us may have grown up with, “Go outside and don’t come in until it’s dark,” it’s not so easy to do these days. The world is a bit of a different place, and honestly? Kids get more exercise when they’re outside with friends or siblings. Friends nearby and/or siblings aren’t always an option, though, so it’s important that we help encourage our kids to actually *do something* outside. Some kids need motivation, others need good ideas. Yes, they should always have the option of using their imagination and exploring freely as they’re led if that’s who they are, but it’s also important to remember we all are more motivated to do something when it’s just plain fun to do!
Plus, just being outside isn’t the key factor to your children having any restorative effects from being outdoors. One study found that kids were sent outside to play in a green space with trees or a paved schoolyard. When they returned from playing, testing results showed the kids who were playing in the green space with trees had better attention and working memory than did the kids who played on the paved school play yard. Where our kids play outdoors and with what makes a big difference.
Not to mention, we want our kids to have opportunities outside that allow them to take calculated risks and develop body systems through their play. Researchers stress the need for the balance between risk and safety for a child’s development and the best outdoor toys for kids will allow them to find that balance.
The Best Outdoor Toys For Kids
Kids love scooters. They love having their own ‘transportation’ and they love being able to have a little bit of independence. The Micro Rocket Foldable Scooter is made for kids -teens who weigh up to 220 pounds, and the extra-wide wheels give it a better grip on pavement and allow for stronger braking. It’s one of those toys that allows your kids to exercise calculated risk when playing, and keeps them outside for hours because there are so many places you can take it (and then fold it).
We love that Micro’s mission is to create fun and healthy products that also let them use the power of business to give to global organizations. Every time a Micro product is purchased in their giveback periods, they donate a portion of their proceeds to different organizations that focus on sustainability, childhood nutrition and exercise, housing and transportation efforts.
HABA toys has a cool line called Terra Kids that is designed to encourage children to creatively explore their worlds around them. This cool cork boat is a fantabulously fun DIY activity that lets kids build the boat and then use imagination to adapt and modify. The instructions offer great suggestions, but kids aren’t limited to anything but their creativity. It’s virtually unsinkable, and eco-friendly and they’ll love creating and then trying different ways to navigate the seas.
And while we’re talking about HABA’s Terra Kids line, we have to add that the Block and Tackle Rope and Pulley system is pretty incredible too. Can you imagine how much treehouse fun can be had with this system? It’s great for tinkerers and allows them to come up with all sorts of ways to use it, all the while, exploring and understanding physics (without them even knowing that’s what they’re doing). Super easy to assemble and reassemble, it’s endless opportunity for outdoor fun, and it can be used inside too, so nice and versatile.
If your house is anything like mine, you have some nature-lovers who love catching all sorts of creatures, examining them and releasing them. Except, the releasing part is a little harder on their hearts, and doesn’t always happen, thus mason jars full of these poor critters that never make it back home.
But that’s why we love this BugView Magnifier from Carson! It’s a more humane bug-catching system–with a thumb-operated trapping slider that lets kids catch what they want to investigate and then release them. The 5x power acrylic magnifier allows ambient light in allowing kiddos to easily see even the smallest details and it’s a one-handed bug catching tool that has six bugview bug catchers.
We love Plan Toys. Their whole goal is to offer kids and families sustainable play and we are all in. They craft everything with thought and consideration from reclaimed rubberwood and they don’t even waste any ‘saw’ dust as they create their own PlanWood–composite wood that’s used to make things like the tracks and golf hole of this fun mini-golf set. Who needs a putt-putt course when your kids can create their own, over and over and over with whatever fun hazards and traps they can come up with?
Plan Toys has spent more than 30 years working on creating toys that contribute positively to our world, and there’s nothing to worry about in the materials. It’s eco-friendly, uses water-based organic dyes, and works to cultivate creative minds who are more in tune with what nature brings us.
EverEarth is another company we admire for their commitment to creating products that our children and our earth love. They use eco-friendly materials, focus on thoughtful consideration and give back to the earth by planting trees with every purchase.
This patent-pending inflatable chair finally offers kids the fun and sensory input that some other inflatables do, but with materials that are sustainable and thought out. The EZYAir uses the air your child creates simply by spinning in the wind, and let us tell you–that’s half the fun for kids. They’ll love inflating, reinflating and using the chair, and you’ll love that it’s easy to travel with and easy to clean!
We don’t know of any kids who don’t relish the thought of having their own teepee tent outside to have secret club meetings and lunch, and the Lavie Vert Canvas teepee is perfect for doing so. All materials are eco-friendly-natural and breathable cotton canvas and pine poles that are paint an smell free. There are no harmful chemicals and the classic four-sided design offers tons of room for kids to play, dream and share. It has curtains for ‘privacy’ and pockets for keeping nature’s trinkets and the enclosed mat will keep it nice and dry on the bottom too. Yes, you can use this tent for a weekend camping trip they’ll never forget.
You hand-wash the canvas in cold water and air dry, so it’s easy to take care of too.
Talk about having fun and building core muscles (which mean better core strengths and motor skill ability) outdoors–the Whirly Board is just the thing for the job. It’s challenging but fun, so they’ll stick with it because they will want to keep working on progressing their skills and be the master of the board. It’s a fun way to be active and burn off energy in a creative way, and takes them away from screen time challenges with real-life fun. For kids, the hours they’ll spend trying to do tricks and outdo each other will be something they can enjoy at various ages and for many years.
We dig Buena Onda because they’re all about fair trade and taking care of community. Their products are hand crocheted in Fair Trade conditions by women in Guatemala. They’re fun and affordable, and they can help your kids work on all sorts of skills and accuracy. These table games are perfect for your kids to creatively play either according to the instructions or however they choose. Hacky sacks are a great way to develop motor skills and coordination and they can be played by oneself or in groups of siblings or friends. They’re perfect for taking just about anywhere you’ll be out and about.
How much fun will your kids have with this Find and Seek Scavenger Hunt game? It’s a game that you can play indoors or out, but for outdoor play, we love that it inspires your kids to be creative and explore. The set has 35 Find and Seek cards with different things your kids will be on the lookout for–even young non-readers will be able to play and enjoy because of the picture recognition ability. It’s a great way for those who have one child in the home to be able to play together, but still independently in that you can share the cards and discuss the findings together. Kids will be able to explore their environments and as they do, learn about them too, in a super fun way.
American Ninja Warrior comes from B4 Adventure, and the founder of B4 Adventure has one goal in mind for the products his company creates and has–to get kids outdoors. He believes it’s so important that he focuses on product lines that are geared to do just that. The American Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course is a great way for your child’s creativity to flow. It can be set up in dozens of different ways, and it can become neighborhood competition or just a bit of sibling rivalry. It can even be a challenge for oneself that creates stamina and endurance in a fun way, but the best part is that kids really feel like ninja warriors all while they’re outside.
These are not your average bubble wands. These bubble wands are made with stainless steel telescopic poles that can be adjusted to sic different lengths. This means that there are tons of different ways for your kids to make some pretty incredible looking bubbles and bubbles are FAMOUS for keeping kids outside. They’re fun for experimentation and just to see how big a bubble your child can make, and they’re guaranteed (almost) to become addictive. In a very good way.
This maple wood disc swing is made from 100% hard maple and made to curve for more comfort and range of motion when swinging and swurfing. And yes, your kids will love swurfing because it’s novel. You can hang it from a tree or swing set and it becomes all sorts of adventure for kids who love to move and fly through the air. And they give back by planting trees. Yes!
The Fliker by Yvolution is a super-cool self-propelled scooter that has a lightweight frame and lift mechanism so kids can do wheelies and all sorts of other cool tricks. It has a foldable frame so they can take it to a friend’s house and ride, and a quick-response brake that gives them increased control.
Made with wooden blocks that are incredibly easy to manipulate but still challenging when it comes to putting them together so they don’t tumble every turn, Giant Jenga is just like the regular version but perfect for outside. The hardwood is durable and takes the brunt when it they fall on the ground. The blocks can also be used to build creatively–forts, bases, all sorts of things.
Guinness World Record Holder David Fisher recommends something as simple as a jump rope for outdoor fun, and we’ve gotta admit, old school is sometimes the way to go.
Fisher says that a jump rope is one of the best outdoor toys for kids because it has longevity and can grow with your kids. KangaRope jump ropes are made of solid phthalate-free vinyl cord with free-spinning, easy-grip, low density shatterproof handles. David says that if a rope breaks (with normal use) you can send it back and he’ll replace it. And, he’ll repair or recycle the used rope you send back. Some of the ropes he’s repaired as part of this plan are nearly 30-years-old, which goes to show the longevity of a quality jump-rope. Jumping rope is great for cardio health, but it’s also just fun by yourself or with others.