The Importance of Policies Promoting Children’s Outdoor Play

How does outside play contribute to children's health, development and well-being? Banner image: Shutterstock/Iam Anupong
The Importance of Policies Promoting Children’s Outdoor Play

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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If there was a simple way to address some of the major challenges facing children today, would we do it? What if we could make significant strides in improving children’s mental well-being, physical health, creativity, learning and academic achievement? Would we be motivated to act if we could reduce the likelihood of infectious disease transmission and improve immunity? What about if we could foster a culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability, and help build the health of cities for all citizens? Would acting to meet targets for the Sustainable Development Goals motivate us? What about meeting our commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

This intervention isn’t expensive, nor one that has to be imposed on unwilling children. In fact, rather than dreading it, children report being their happiest when doing it and want do more of it.

What is this simple solution that can tackle so many challenges? Outdoor play.

The magic of outdoor play

When we think back to our favourite play memory, many of us were outdoors. We might recall a sense of joy and wonder, being able to run and jump and shout without being chastised, meeting up with our friends and having endless time to explore, craft new games and make spaces our own. As research builds on outdoor play, it has become increasingly apparent how critically important these opportunities are for children’s health, development and well-being.

When children play outside in stimulating environments, they move more, sit less and play longer. They get their hands in the dirt, exposing themselves to microbiomes that build their immunity. They invent new activities and games and resolve disputes with friends, helping develop creativity, executive function and social skills. They take risks, conduct experiments with the world and move their bodies in novel ways, learning to build physical literacy and risk management skills, self-confidence and resilience. Their eyes get the exercise they need to help reduce myopia.

Read the OECD report: "Education in the Digital Age: Healthy and Happy Children" to explore the important role of play and risk-taking in learning

Unfortunately, these benefits are not available to all children. Many countries have seen decreases in outdoor play for successive generations of children. Further, children from lower-income households and living in high density apartments can have disproportionately fewer opportunities. These inequities were made explicit during the COVID-19 pandemic when so many children were isolated from friends and had their outdoor play time restricted.

Creating supportive environments for outdoor play

There are three key ingredients to support outdoor play: time, space and freedom:

Time: Children need daily, dedicated time for play. Time for play has shrunk with increasing focus on school work, more time spent on screens and in structured activities, and heightened fears of abduction or serious injury. Prioritising time for outdoor play requires an understanding of what’s currently available: a combined effort to educate parents, childcare environments, schools and the community on its importance, and hold local policy makers accountable. In 2014, Wales became the first country to establish a duty requiring local authorities to create conditions supportive of children’s outdoor play. Their toolkits and guidance can provide a useful roadmap for other jurisdictions.

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can children believe in us to invest in mental health?" by Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, Eurochild

Read more on the Forum Network: "Can children believe in us to invest in mental health?" by Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, EurochildRead more on the Forum Network: "Can children believe in us to invest in mental health?" by Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, Eurochild

Space: Children need ready access to high quality outdoor spaces, particularly children living in apartments. Urban planning dedicated to cars has exacerbated children’s retreat indoors. This approach fails to recognise the importance of the built environment in shaping children’s lives, as well as the importance of children in shaping cities. Arup proposes that the time children spend in outdoor play, their ability to move around their cities independently and the extent of their contact with nature are key indicators for a city’s health—not just for children, but for all citizens.

High quality outdoor spaces don’t necessarily include expensive play equipment; rather, they are spaces where all children feel welcome and have access to loose parts (such as sticks, rocks, water, cardboard boxes) that allow their imagination to shape the play. In cities, this means inclusive, child-friendly design where play can happen anywhere, and there is easy access to nature. The US National Association of City Transport Officials outlines street design principles for children.

Freedom: Adults’ fears are the biggest barriers to children’s outdoor play. We need to let go of our unsubstantiated fears of injuries and abduction to recognise that the benefits of outdoor play far outweigh the risks. We developed an interactive tool for parents and educators to help reframe our ideas of risk, recognise our fears and develop a plan for change.

Find out more about, a collaborative initiative striving to help parents and communities to reverse the trend that is limiting children's chances to play outside and take risks in play

What can I do?

We all have a role to play. Supporting our children, helping reduce the profound negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the vast inequities in children’s outcomes, preparing our future leaders, caring for the health of our cities—all of this requires that children’s right to play underpin all aspects of our societies. While we vary in our levels of readiness to support outdoor play, the start of our journey does not have to be complicated or expensive. It can be as simple as opening the front door. There are lots of tools available to help you get started regardless of your role—parent, educator, city planner, policy maker. Consider one simple, attainable thing you can do today to help the children in your life get out to play. Our future depends on it.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being

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Go to the profile of Peter Lunenborg
over 2 years ago

Perhaps OECD can encourage member states to adopt policies that enable creches/childcare centres to increase outdoor play. In France all young children are usually locked up in a building the entire day whereas in Switzerland they are outside for a significant part of the time