The benefits of outdoor play for children are many and well-documented but when is outdoor play safe in this age of coronavirus?
What are the benefits of outdoor play?
Children are likely to exercise more vigorously outdoors. Studies have indicated that kids were twice as active when playing outdoors where there is greater freedom to run, jump, and climb. This cardiovascular exercise promotes good health and a lower likelihood of obesity. In young children, one study found that for every additional minute of outdoor play, a child was 1% less likely to become obese. Vigorous exercise also appears to stimulate brain growth, boost cognitive performance and help children focus.
The breadth of outdoor experiences can also help children develop their executive functions, those that help them plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate and multitask. This, of course, encourages them to use their imaginations and be creative. Outdoor activities also tend to increase hands on experiences and improve sensory skills and increase attention spans. They can experience the diversity of how things feel and work and the words (eg- squishy mud) associated with those experiences. Kids have also been shown to prefer playgrounds with more challenging play structures and this may help them gain more confidence in their abilities.
Sunshine is also a tremendous benefit to outdoor play, in numerous ways (but protect against sunburn). Sun exposure causes us to make vitamin D and this plays an important role in multiple bodily functions, including bone development, digestive processes and a healthy immune system. Bright light also helps children concentrate and may enhance the formation of synapses in the brain. Sunlight also helps program the brain’s “inner clock” and synchronize with the rhythms of day and night. This seems to cause melatonin, the sleep hormone, to increase earlier in the evening as long as artificial light exposure (screens, room lighting) are minimized in the hours before bedtime. This can help children fall asleep earlier, though it may not increase sleep duration. Outdoor play and sunlight have even been shown to reduce a child’s risk of becoming nearsighted. This will not overcome heredity but it seems to at least delay its onset. Researchers are not sure how this occurs but relief from close work, like reading, and exposure to bright daylight are felt to play a role.
Playing in green, natural outdoor environments can add to the benefits of outside play when and where it is possible. Studies have shown benefits such as improved mood, decreased stress, improved attention and focus and better working memory performance after periods of outside activity in green spaces with trees as compared to paved spaces. In fact, research has suggested that ongoing exposure to green spaces may lead to better behavior, more kindness toward others and even reduce the risk of problems like attention deficit and hyperactivity along with nurturing an interest in the natural world and its preservation.
While solo play and play with sheltering cohorts has its benefits, group interactions outside that bubble can further enhance the benefits of outdoor play. Research suggests that kids not only get more exercise outdoors when they play with friends and siblings but that cooperative outdoor play is important in helping children learn social skills and to enhance communications skills. In the less structured environments presented by outdoor play, children may be more likely to be challenged to share, cooperate and to learn how to treat each other. In other words, how to make friends.
Under what circumstances is outdoor play safe in this age of coronavirus?
The question we are faced with now is, can children safely engage in outdoor group play in the age of coronavirus? While we struggle with when and whether children can return to school, we are faced with some of the same questions regarding the safety of outdoor play with children from outside of one’s sheltering cohorts.
Where can we look for answers?
Recent studies from Europe and elsewhere have shown that schools can be opened safely under the right circumstances and, most importantly, that children under 10 years seem to not only get infected with covid-19 less frequently but also usually have milder or asymptomatic infection when they do get it. On top of that, studies seem to also demonstrate that these young children are rarely the ones who infect other children or adults. Most infections are passed from older children and adults among themselves and sometimes to younger children. Still, the evidence of unlikely school transmission is not definitive. Can the European experience be applied to schools in the U.S.? In many instances in the U.S., classes are more crowded, may not be well-ventilated, may not always be as conducive to good hand hygiene and schools are unlikely to be able to do the testing and contact tracing that most experts say is necessary for safe school opening . In addition, in many places in the U.S., there is greater diversity in the student population than might be true in the European schools where these studies have been done. We know that the incidence of infection and more severe illness is higher in the hispanic and black populations in the U.S..
Much or all of this may be due to socioeconomic factors BUT we don’t know with any certainty what biological factors may make some people and even some races more vulnerable. Of course, none of the above takes into account the risk of infection for teachers and other adult school staff, not necessarily from their students but from other school adults AND, most importantly, from the communities they live in. If there is one area that makes comparisons between the U.S. experience and that in other countries difficult, it is the fact that covid-19 is currently very prevalent and even out of control in many communities in the U.S. Not only does this make the likelihood greater that teachers will be infected outside the school but that they will bring it into the school and pass it to other adults and even to students. There IS some evidence of greater transmission to and between young children where infections are increasing exponentially in their communities.
So what does this mean for outdoor play outside of the school environment?
First of all, we know that transmission of infection is much less likely outdoors than indoors. We can also glean from the school experiences above and from other data that, indoors or outdoors, children, especially younger children, don’t get infected as frequently and as severely as older kids and adults. The number of contacts in outdoor play can also be more easily limited to a few in neighborhood play and the state of health of playmates is more likely to be known and communicated. It is certainly difficult to maintain social distancing in young children and it should be noted that many of the international studies of school transmission came from schools that did not invoke social distancing (or even masks in some cases). It is certainly reasonable, especially in high covid prevalence regions, to try to get children over 2 to wear a mask or facial covering and this can even be made into a fun and educational game.
The bottom line
Outdoor play has benefits for children that are both compelling and unique to that environment and are further enhanced by group activities. Even in this age of coronavirus, outdoor play can be made safe and should be promoted.
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