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Outdoor Play: 50 Statistics and Quick Facts

Kids need time outside to play. Just how essential is time in nature? What difference does outdoor play make? Today’s post is a collection of statistics and facts about outdoor play, health, and child development. 

Please note that some of the studies were quite small or observational, so take some of these statistics with a grain of salt.*

If nothing else, lists like this are a nice thought exercise, to see if these ideas feel true for our families or communities.

Also, these facts and stats are a great starting point for more research and activities. 

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a general theme to most of the research big and small: outdoor play is good for kids’ health. Of course, there are exceptions when the air is polluted, especially for kids with asthma and allergies.

Otherwise, playing outside is a pretty remarkable part of a healthy childhood.

*For example, there’s the statistic about kids needing to go to the hospital more for falling out of beds than for falling out of trees. (See #5 under the “Risks” section). It’s sort of stating the obvious, isn’t it? Most kids spend more time in beds than in trees, right? That being said, maybe some such statistics are a reminder that even staying home in bed isn’t without risk.

Outdoor Play & Health Statistics

  1. If the world’s population were more active, nearly 5 million deaths per year could be prevented (1).
  2. The more time children spend outside, the less likely it is they’ll need to wear glasses for nearsightedness. (More details can be found in this post).
  3. More “greenness” (parks, gardens, natural vegetation) exposure was associated with lower risks of insulin resistance in teenagers. This was thought to be related to less air pollution (2).
  4. High levels of outdoor play reduced preschoolers’ risk of obesity by 42% (3).
  5. Greenness and vegetation diversity influenced a child’s risk for asthma. More different types of vegetation lowered asthma risk by 6.7% (4).
  6. Time in nature improved sleep for adults (5).
  7. Children who exercised while viewing greenery had lower systolic blood pressure compared to those who did not view green scenery (6).
  8. Kids’ immune systems improved after more frequent exposure to a forest floor (7). Read all the details here.
  9. In rural children who were overweight (ages 8-14 years), more residential park space  was associated with a decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI) (8).
  10. Simply having access to the outdoors can lower risks of obesity and depression (9).

Physical Activity Facts and the Outdoors

Black Text on blue background: Kids' Physical Activity Goals (World Health organization) with listed recs for ages 1-2 years, ages 3-4 years, and age 1 5-17 years. Information is the same as in the following list of the post. Graphic  of crawling baby, 2 kids playing with a ball, and a person jogging.
  1. Less than 20% of the world’s adolescents are physically active enough (1).
  2. Roughly 50% of preschoolers met physical activity recommendations in a 2015 study (10).
  3. Each day, toddlers 1-2 years of age should spend 3 hours in a variety of physical activities at any intensity (1).
  4. Children aged 3-4 should spend 3 hours each day in various physical activities, 60 minutes of which should be moderate to vigorous (1).
  5. Children and adolescents aged 5-17 years should average 60 minutes daily of moderate-vigorous physical activity, incorporating strengthening activities 3 days a week (1).
  6. To achieve a minute of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, a young child needed to spend 9.1 min indoors vs. 3.8 min outdoors (11).
  7. When preschoolers play freely inside, they’re typically not physically active enough to meet health guidelines (12).
  8. When outdoors, most preschoolers are physically active for bouts less than 20 seconds long (12).
  9. More vigorous physical activity in kids happens in parks and open spaces compared to indoors (13).
  10. A child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike (14).
  11. When outdoors, preschoolers are two times as active compared to indoors in child care settings (11).
  12. Every additional 10 min outdoors each day was associated with a 2.9 min increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (11).
  13. When outdoor play equipment was in good condition and available, preschoolers were more active compared to kids who did not have “upgraded” equipment (58 minutes compared to 42 minutes per day) (15).
  14. When their child was at a childcare facility outside the home, over 50% of parents said they did not know how many minutes their child spent outside (16).
  15.  43% of parents reported that they did not know their childcare center’s outdoor play policies (16).
  16.  Nearly half of preschoolers lack one outdoor play session (supervised by a parent) each day (17).
  17. The amount of screen time correlates with body fat measurements in children (18).
  18. 90% of kids want more play in their lives (19).
Text: When outdoors, preschoolers are twice as active compared to indoors.
Ref: Tandon et al
www.mayapeds.com
black text on blue background. graphic image of young child walking.

Outdoor Play and Mental Health Facts & Statistics

  1. 30 minutes of recess, especially in green spaces, improves children’s academic performance (21).
  2. Teens in a natural setting (outdoors) recover more quickly from stress and mental fatigue compared to being indoors (20).
  3. If a teen is outdoors recovering from stress, being with a friend improves the positive “outdoors effect” even more (20).
  4. Playing outside was positively associated with improved social skills in preschoolers (compared to television viewing) (23).
  5. Increasing residential green space was associated with a 38% lower risk of hyperactivity problems in children (24).
  6. ADHD symptoms are reduced in a green outdoor setting (25).
  7. Girls with views of green nature from their homes had better impulse control than children with “barren views.” (This was in an urban area and the difference was not noted in boys). (26).
  8. Children who attended schools closer to nature had less school behavior problems (27).
  9. Preschoolers who participated in a nature program for 10 weeks reported lower stress (28).
  10. Children in classrooms with view of green landscapes performed better on attention tests (20).
  11. Students had better recovery from stressful experiences if their classroom had views of greenery outside (20).
  12. Children who played in a forest did better in motor skills testing than children who played on a standard playground (29).
  13. Children played more creatively in areas with more trees and grass compared to areas with less vegetation (in an urban environment) (30).
  14.  Children with ADHD were able to focus better after a 20 minute walk in a park (compared to other environments) (31).
Text: 30 minutes of recess, especially in green spaces, improves children’s academic performance.
Ref Sacks 2005. www.mayapeds.com
Graphic image of child jumping with arms outstretched. black text. blue background

Risks and Health Concerns of Outdoor Play: Facts and Statistics

  1. Just over 47% of emergency room visits for exertional heat-related concerns were for people age 19 or younger (32).
  2. With appropriate measures, exertional heat-related illness is usually preventable in children (32).
  3. 75% of exertional heat-related injuries were due to playing sports or exercising. Yardwork was a distant second at 11% and mostly in older adults (32).
  4. While weather affects physical activity outside, it varies around the world.  For example, Northern Europeans and people from Melbourne, Australia are more active overall and were able to stay more active in inclement weather, compared to  those in the United States and Western Europe. (This study emphasized rain and wind as opposed to excess heat) (33).
  5.  In the United Kingdom, children are more likely to be taken to the hospital for falling out of their bed than out of trees (34).
  6. Almost 50% of parents surveyed in the United Kingdom cited “fear of strangers” as the reason for preventing their children to play (35).
  7. In the United States, Metropolitan New York City has the most exposure to toxic air pollution at schools (36).
  8. Non-White children are more likely to attend schools with high risk for air pollution that can affect brain development (36).
  9. Eating broccoli sprouts may help people “detox” some air pollutants (37). This post has more ideas for limiting risks of air pollution in kids.

Sources

  1. World Health Organization Physical Activity Fact Sheet. November 2020.
  2. Thiering, E., Markevych, I., Brüske, I., Fuertes, E., Kratzsch, J., Sugiri, D., Hoffmann, B., von Berg, A., Bauer, C. P., Koletzko, S., Berdel, D., & Heinrich, J. (2016). Associations of Residential Long-Term Air Pollution Exposures and Satellite-Derived Greenness with Insulin Resistance in German Adolescents. Environmental health perspectives124(8), 1291–1298.
  3. Ansari, A., Pettit, K., & Gershoff, E. (2015). Combating Obesity in Head Start: Outdoor Play and Change in Children’s Body Mass Index. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP36(8), 605–612.
  4. Donovan, G.H., Gatziolis, D., Longley, I. et al. Vegetation diversity protects against childhood asthma: results from a large New Zealand birth cohort. Nature Plants 4, 358–364 (2018). 
  5. Grigsby-Toussaint, D. S., Turi, K. N., Krupa, M., Williams, N. J., Pandi-Perumal, S. R., & Jean-Louis, G. (2015). Sleep insufficiency and the natural environment: Results from the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. Preventive medicine78, 78–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.07.011
  6. Duncan, M. J., Clarke, N. D., Birch, S. L., Tallis, J., Hankey, J., Bryant, E., & Eyre, E. L. (2014). The effect of green exercise on blood pressure, heart rate and mood state in primary school children. International journal of environmental research and public health11(4), 3678–3688. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph110403678
  7. Roslund, M. I., Puhakka, R., Grönroos, M., Nurminen, N., Oikarinen, S., Gazali, A. M., Cinek, O., Kramná, L., Siter, N., Vari, H. K., Soininen, L., Parajuli, A., Rajaniemi, J., Kinnunen, T., Laitinen, O. H., Hyöty, H., Sinkkonen, A., & ADELE research group (2020). Biodiversity intervention enhances immune regulation and health-associated commensal microbiota among daycare children. Science advances6(42), eaba2578. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba2578
  8. Armstrong B, Lim CS, Janicke DM. Park density impacts weight change in a behavioral intervention for overweight rural youth. Behav Med. 2015;41(3):123–130
  9. Nelson, A. Access to nature reduces depression and obesity, finds European study. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/21/access-nature-reduces-depression-obesity-european-report. March 2017. Accessed August 2022.
  10. Pate, R. R., O’Neill, J. R., Brown, W. H., Pfeiffer, K. A., Dowda, M., & Addy, C. L. (2015). Prevalence of Compliance with a New Physical Activity Guideline for Preschool-Age Children. Childhood obesity (Print)11(4), 415–420. https://doi.org/10.1089/chi.2014.0143
  11. Tandon, P. S., Saelens, B. E., Zhou, C., & Christakis, D. A. (2018). A Comparison of Preschoolers’ Physical Activity Indoors versus Outdoors at Child Care. International journal of environmental research and public health15(11), 2463. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15112463
  12. Koepp, A. E., Gershoff, E. T., Castelli, D. M., & Bryan, A. E. (2022). Total Play Time Needed for Preschoolers to Reach Recommended Amount of Non-Sedentary Activity. International journal of environmental research and public health19(6), 3354. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19063354
  13. Coombes E, van Sluijs E, Jones A. Is environmental setting associated with the intensity and duration of children’s physical activity? Findings from the SPEEDY GPS study. Health Place. 2013;20:62–65.
  14. Cauchon D. Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors. USA Today. 2005 July 11. https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-07-11-pastimes-childhood_x.htm. Retrieved August 2022. Via Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009). Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research. Organization & environment22(1), 99–122. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086026609333340
  15. Ng, M., Rosenberg, M., Thornton, A., Lester, L., Trost, S. G., Bai, P., & Christian, H. (2020). The Effect of Upgrades to Childcare Outdoor Spaces on Preschoolers’ Physical Activity: Findings from a Natural Experiment. International journal of environmental research and public health17(2), 468. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17020468
  16. Jayasuriya, A., Williams, M., Edwards, T., & Tandon, P. (2016). Parents’ perceptions of preschool activities: exploring outdoor play. Early education and development27(7), 1004–1017. https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2016.1156989
  17. Seattle Children’s Research Institute appearing in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine )
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  19. National Geographic
  20. Dongying Li, William C. Sullivan. Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landscape and Urban Planning. Volume 148. 2016, 149-158
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  22. Hinkley, T., Brown, H., Carson, V., & Teychenne, M. (2018). Cross sectional associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills in preschool children. PloS one13(4), e0193700. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193700
  23. Hinkley, T., Brown, H., Carson, V., & Teychenne, M. (2018). Cross sectional associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills in preschool children. PloS one13(4), e0193700. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193700
  24. Dockx, Y., Bijnens, E. M., Luyten, L., Peusens, M., Provost, E., Rasking, L., Sleurs, H., Hogervorst, J., Plusquin, M., Casas, L., & Nawrot, T. S. (2022). Early life exposure to residential green space impacts cognitive functioning in children aged 4 to 6 years. Environment international161, 107094. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107094
  25. Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004). A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: evidence from a national study. American journal of public health94(9), 1580–1586. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.94.9.1580
  26.  Faber Taylor A, Kuo FE, Sullivan WC. Views of nature and self-discipline: evidence from inner-city children. J Environ Psychol. 2002;22:49–63.
  27. Angel M. Dzhambov, Peter Lercher, Johannes Rüdisser, Matthew H.E.M. Browning, Iana Markevych. Home gardens and distances to nature associated with behavior problems in alpine schoolchildren: Role of secondhand smoke exposure and biomarkers, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, Volume 243, 202
  28. PSobko T, Liang S, Cheng WHG, Tun HM. Impact of outdoor nature-related activities on gut microbiota, fecal serotonin, and perceived stress in preschool children: the Play&Grow randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):21993
  29. Fjortoft via Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009). Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research. Organization & environment22(1), 99–122.
  30. Taylor, A. F., Wiley, A., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (1998). Growing Up in the Inner City: Green Spaces as Places to Grow. Environment and Behavior30(1), 3–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916598301001
  31. Taylor, A. F., & Kuo, F. E. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of attention disorders12(5), 402–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054708323000
  32. Nelson, N. G., Collins, C. L., Comstock, R. D., & McKenzie, L. B. (2011). Exertional heat-related injuries treated in emergency departments in the U.S., 1997-2006. American journal of preventive medicine40(1), 54–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2010.09.031
  33. Harrison, F., Goodman, A., van Sluijs, E., Andersen, L. B., Cardon, G., Davey, R., Janz, K. F., Kriemler, S., Molloy, L., Page, A. S., Pate, R., Puder, J. J., Sardinha, L. B., Timperio, A., Wedderkopp, N., Jones, A. P., & on behalf the ICAD collaborators (2017). Weather and children’s physical activity; how and why do relationships vary between countries?. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity14(1), 74. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0526-7
  34. Play England via Moss, S. Natural Childhood Report. National Trust. Accessed: https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/read-our-natural-childhood-report.pdf
  35. Children spend half the time playing outside in comparison to their parents 2018. Child in the City website. https://www.childinthecity.org/2018/01/15/children-spend-half-the-time-playing-outside-in-comparison-to-their-parents
  36. Grineski, S. E., & Collins, T. W. (2018). Geographic and social disparities in exposure to air neurotoxicants at U.S. public schools. Environmental research161, 580–587. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2017.11.047
  37. Egner, P. A., Chen, J. G., Zarth, A. T., Ng, D. K., Wang, J. B., Kensler, K. H., Jacobson, L. P., Muñoz, A., Johnson, J. L., Groopman, J. D., Fahey, J. W., Talalay, P., Zhu, J., Chen, T. Y., Qian, G. S., Carmella, S. G., Hecht, S. S., & Kensler, T. W. (2014). Rapid and sustainable detoxication of airborne pollutants by broccoli sprout beverage: results of a randomized clinical trial in China. Cancer prevention research (Philadelphia, Pa.)7(8), 813–823. https://doi.org/10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-14-0103

Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

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