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What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?

National Outdoor Play Day is the first Saturday of each month.

*Primary authors are Ali Thiel and Oby Ekwueme

Kickball. Soccer. Mudpies. Climbing trees. Is there anything more fun in the world than playing? Pure, childlike freedom where anything is possible and anything goes. Nowadays, much of play is indoors. Computer games. TV. PS3 (or whatever version they’re on now). Something seems to be missing: Joy? Shared connection? The carefree laughter has been replaced by the quick jabs of a controller.

Recent studies tell us why indoor play is detrimental to children’s growth.

Outdoors, a child learns on multiple levels with each new adventure (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005). With all of the imaginary castles, lands, and creatures, the brain develops at a much faster rate than for those who play indoors. There are numerous effects. Not only do they become better learners, and do well in school, but they are more fun to be around (i.e., they make more friends)—everyone wants to play with the kid with the active imagination! Consequently, children will be much happier because, hey, they’re smart and they have a lot of friends. All of this comes from just playing outside; you can bake many loaves in the same oven.

Not only are there mental advantages to playing outside, there are even more physical advantages. Obviously, if a child is playing outside he/she will be way more active than the child that stays indoors. The great thing about this is that it can have long-lasting effects (Cleland, et al., 2008). Years down the road, the child will still be more active and less likely to be overweight. If you think about this, it makes perfect sense; teach a child when they’re young to love the outdoors and they will love it forever.

Now here’s what the experts say about the disadvantages of indoor play. The worst news first. Researchers have found a disorder called “Nature Deficit Disorder." Basically, this means that not playing outdoors and with nature (e.g., hiking or camping) is really detrimental for kids. Researchers have even gone so far as to study whether how close parents are to nature affects their children. They found that children who lived closer to nature and had more opportunities to be in the natural world were less stressed out with life (Wells and Evans, 2003). They also found that children who had a more natural day-care setting (e.g., camps) had better motor coordination and could better concentrate/pay attention (Wells, 2000), back to what we were talking about up top. This makes sense, though, because nature can provide an outlet to get away from life’s stressors like our fast-paced, technological world. Nature slows us down, lowering blood pressure, as we appreciate its natural beauty (Wells, 2000). So basically, when kids don’t play outside in the natural world, they miss the great benefits that nature provides.

Now right about here some people may argue for indoor play. Don’t games such as Wii Fit, Just Dance, and Dance-Dance Revolution offer physical benefits? Well, yes. It has been found that children who play these games get about the same levels of physical exertion as children who walk for an hour (Graft, Pratt, Hester, and Short, 2009). But, there are so many disadvantages to playing these games. They are missing connecting to nature, the freedom to invent games themselves and interact freely with others. Wii games are more like adult-directed sports activities. They just are not as good as letting children direct their own play. Moreover, violent video games have been shown to “produce” more violent children than children who play neutral video games (Willoughby, Adachi, and Good, 2012) or than those who play outside.

Researchers have discovered why children like video games. Do you know what they found? Children play video games for many reasons, including that video games are a fun challenge, stress relievers, offer companionship with other players and/or friends (Colwell, 2007). Doesn’t this sound like a poor substitute for playing outside? You can reap the more rewards and it’s free.

Now, some people may be wondering why parents let their kids stay indoors if playing outside is so much better. Some parents are worried about picking up germs outside. Oddly enough, research shows that the air indoors is actually more likely to promote asthma than being outside (Epstein, 2001). For families who live in big cities, it does not seem like there is a choice because parents fear for their kids’ safety. This has become such an issue that the current generation is used to being watched constantly, unlike prior generations.

Solutions in this case might be:

  1. Parents can play outside with their kids. Even kicking or throwing a ball around is good--not only would this allow the children to get the fun of playing outside, but it would also help foster closer parent-to-child bonds.
  2. Allow your child to ride their bike to school. Not only is this physical activity, but through this, they can also develop safety awareness for themselves.
  3. Let your child walk to school with friends or with you. One study showed that some children prefer to walk places because of boring car rides and they were apart from their friends (Mitchell, Kearns, and Collins, 2007).
  4. Talk to your neighbors about getting the kids out. One study showed that many parents reported restricting their children’s outdoor time because there were few people out and about in the neighborhood; however, by keeping children in, it dissuades other parents from allowing their children out as well (Carver, Timperio, and Crawford, 2008). So it turns into a vicious cycle!

Outdoor activities are fun and very helpful for children’s development. Indoor activities, though they may be fun, can be detrimental because they do not promote adequate physical and mental growth. One way to combat this is allowing children to do little things (e.g., play catch, walk to school, ride their bikes around the neighborhood with their friends).

So what are you waiting for? It’s National Outdoor Play Day (the first Saturday in every month). Get up off of that chair and go outside and play!

*Ali Thiel and Oby Ekwueme are students at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.


Burdette, H., & Whitaker, R. (2005). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med., 159, 46-50. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.159.1.46.

Carver, A., Timperio A., & Crawford, D. (2008). Playing it safe: The influence of neighbourhood safety on children’s physical activity—A review. Health & Place, 14, 217-227. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2007.06.004.

Cleland, V., Crawford, D., Baur, L.A., Hume, C., Timperio, A., & Salmon, J. (2008) A prospective examination of children’s time spent outdoors, objectively measure physically activity and overweight. International Journal on Obesity, 32(11), 1685-1693.

Colwell, J. (2007). Needs met through computer game play among adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 2072-2082. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2007.06.021.

Epstein, B. (2001). Childhood asthma and indoor allergens: The classroom may be a culprit. The Journal of School Nursing, 17 (5), 253-257.

Graf, D., Pratt, L., Hester, C., & Short, K. (2009). Playing Active Video Games Increases Energy Expenditure in Children. Pediatrics, 124, 534-541. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2851.

Mitchell, H., Kearns, R., & Collins, D. (2007). Nuances of neighbourhood: Children’s perceptions of the space between home and school in Auckland, New Zealand. Geoforum, 38, 614-627. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.012.

Wells, N. (2000). At Home With Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32, 775-795. doi:10.1177/00139160021972793.

Wells, N., & Evans, G.(2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior, 35, 311-330. doi:10.1177/0013916503035003001.

Willoughby, T., Adachi, P., & Good, M. (2011). A Longitudinal Study of the Association Between Violent Video Game Play and Aggression Among Adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1044-1057. doi:10.1037/a0026046.