A Guide for Teens, Kids, and Parents

How To Turn Off Devices & Play Outside

This guide is full of ideas from real parents who not only got themselves and their kids to play outside but helped change the culture in their neighborhoods to do it. Whether you live in a quiet neighborhood where everyone stays behind closed doors or in an apartment building in a bustling urban center, you’ll find something you or your kids can try—even if you’re not athletic and it’s cold or rainy outside. Read on to learn how to get off your devices and play outside!

In This Article

How to Put Devices Down

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that play is fundamental to children’s healthy development and that their immersion in electronic media takes time away from real play.1 So how can parents get their kids to spend less time online and more time playing outside? Lead by example, take baby steps, and get buy-in from your kids by letting them have a say.
outside guide illustration woman playing
Wean Off Slowly – Start by getting yourself and your kids accustomed to doing some activities without devices

  • Designate certain areas in the home for face-to-face conversation only, i.e., no devices allowed. This can be at the dining table and in the living room, for example.
  • Work up to a few tech-free hours each week and, if possible, a tech-free day if your job doesn’t require you to be on call one day on the weekend, for example.
  • Many parents report that they have some of their best conversations with their kids in the car. So, designate the car as a phone-free space. Place devices in the trunk or glove box while you’re driving kids to school and get them to look outside at the trees and the weather and have a conversation about the surrounding environment.
  • Make it a policy to leave devices at home when you or your kids go outside to play.
  • Let the Kids Have Input

  • Have your kids figure out the most meaningful things they do on their devices. Then let them plan how they can do more of that and less of the rest.
  • Have your kids make a list of their favorite things to do outside. Put each thing on a separate piece of paper in a jar and have them pick one each day before they head out.
  • Don’t schedule activities for your kid every single day after school and every weekend. Give them enough free time to get bored and be forced to entertain themselves—outside.
  • The next time your child tells you, “I’m bored,” remember it’s not your job to entertain them. A little boredom is a really good thing for the imagination. Point them to the jar full of their favorite outdoor activities and let them entertain themselves.
  • How to Get Teenagers Playing Outside

    Studies show that outdoor activity decreases and media consumption increases as kids age.2 Many schools stop requiring P.E. for older students and many children get their own cellphone by age twelve. Which means adolescence can be an especially difficult time to get kids to play outside. Read on for some ideas about how to address this unique age group.

    Outside toys – Outside toys are a great way to entice kids of all ages out of the house. Water toys are fun on a hot day. Basketball hoops and soccer goals can lead to neighbors or siblings or you and your teen playing outside together.

    Appeal to a teenagers’ need for independence – Bicycles can give teens a new level of mobility before they’re ready to drive. Get them a bike and get them outside and moving in the fresh air.

    Use their favorite social media content as a clue – Many teenagers spend their free time viewing the activities of others on social media. Learning what kind of activities your teen likes to watch could help you figure out a way to entice them outside. For example, TikTok is full of roller-skating videos. If your teen likes to watch them, you could encourage them to try skating or skateboarding themselves. If you’re handy, consider building a skate ramp in your backyard and encouraging your teen to invite their friends over to practice.

    Video: Skating videos are popular on TikTok. Figure out what kind of activities your teenager likes to watch on social media and encourage them to go outside and try that activity themselves.

    Take the inside outside – Taking activities outside helps teens get used to the idea that outside can be a place to spend free time. Put a ping-pong table in the garage. Play board games outside. If your teen likes to draw, buy them an outdoor easel or challenge them to take a sketchpad outside and draw something they see. Or get a big piece of plywood and ask them to paint a mural to decorate the backyard.

    LARPing– If your teen is really into an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), look for a LARPing, or live action role playing group, in your area. LARPing is the prototype for MMORPG’s except it’s played in real life—and usually in nature! Not only does it entail physical activity, but participants make their own costumes, so it taps into their creativity and imagination, too. Some LARPing events can be pricey, but some that are affordable or even free are Amtgard, Dagorhir, and Belegarth. If there aren’t any LARPing groups near you, consider helping your teen start one in your community.

    Video: A short documentary from 2016 on LARPing, or live action role playing, shot at the first battle of the season for the Tir Asleen chapter of Dagorhir in Northern Vermont. On their website, Dagorhir claims to be “the oldest and arguably the largest live-action roleplay / combat organization in the United States, with chapters in nearly every state from Maine to Hawaii, and several others around the globe.” If your teenager loves playing an MMORPG online, they might enjoy LARPing. If there aren’t any such groups in your area, consider helping them found one.

    Meet them where they are – If your teen won’t get off social media, offer to take them to an outdoor venue to take some photos for “content”. While you’re there, enjoy a walk and take in all the natural beauty around you.

    How to Change a Culture that Doesn’t Prioritize Playing Outside

    Guide illustration of culture change

    When contemplating letting their kids play outside, especially unsupervised, parents often cite two fears. Fear of crime and fear of judgment from other parents that can even result in having the authorities called on them. But studies show that kids need a certain amount of unsupervised play, as well as outdoor play, for proper development. So if you live in a neighborhood where there aren’t any kids outside for yours to play with, you have to be the change you want to see. In this section, we’ll discuss some ideas that real parents have used to change the culture in their neighborhoods.

    Dealing with Fear of Crime – Studies show that familiarity with a geographic area, as well as with the people who live and work there, is effective in combating fear of crime.3 We advise clients who are anxious about their kids’ safety to turn off their devices and get outside with their children to meet their neighbors as a family. It’s a great way to connect with other parents and build a community of support where you can share ideas and resources to address your digital media concerns.

    Dealing with Fear of Judgment – Another benefit of getting to know your neighbors is that you can tell them if you allow your child to play outside without you and give them a way to contact you if they see your child doing anything that causes them concern. When neighbors don’t know each other, they’re more likely to judge or call the authorities when they see a child playing outside unattended by an adult. That’s the advice of early-childhood educator and developmental specialist Allana Robinson who advocates for the benefits of children’s unsupervised outdoor play.

    Changing the Culture – If you live in a neighborhood where there aren’t any kids outside for yours to play with, you have to be the change you want to see. Here are some ideas for how to do that.

  • Invite the neighbors’ kids over to play outside with your kid.
  • Have outdoor furniture in your backyard? Move it to the front yard and have lunch with your family there so your neighbors are forced to run into you. (That’s what Mike Lanza, author of Playborhood, did.)
  • Show movies on a white board in front of your house to attract neighbors. (Another Mike Lanza idea, but we’ve seen it done successfully in other neighborhoods.)
  • Spread the word among neighborhood kids that they’re welcome to play with any outside toys you have even when you aren’t home.
  • Forego playgrounds and playscapes for a natural park instead. Nature is the best occupational therapy there is. When kids run and play on uneven ground, climb trees and rocks, and jump in puddles, it activates their vestibular system. That’s the sensory system that detects external and internal cues so that we can properly perform motor functions like keeping our balance and stabilizing our head and body during movement, as well as maintaining posture.
  • outside guide illustration thermostat

    How to Play
    Outside in Bad Weather

    The US Department of Health & Human Services recommends that children ages 6 and older get at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. And that a reasonable target for children ages 3 to 5 is 3 hours per day of activity of all intensities: light, moderate, or vigorous.4 That means that kids and teens can’t reserve playing outside for good weather days only. Read on to learn how you can get them to play outside in the cold and the rain.

    How to Get Kids to Play Outside in the Winter

    Dress Properly – Be sure kids dress in layers that trap body heat. And the American Academy of Pediatrics adds that, as a general rule of thumb, younger children should wear one more layer than adults. Warm boots or shoes, gloves and a hat are also key.

    Pack Sustenance – The body burns a lot of calories in the cold so be sure to send kids out with snacks to keep their energy up. Pick foods that don’t freeze easily like cheese, crackers, fig bars, nuts, seeds or trail mix. Kids dehydrate quicker, too, so send them out with a thermos of something warm to give keep them hydrated and make them feel cozy.

    Keep Moving – Activities that keep the body moving, like sledding, ice skating, snowball fights, building snowmen or snowforts, and making snow angels, are the best way to go in winter. A great activity to do with your neighbors is to organize a neighborhood scavenger hunt or play winter bingo. Give kids a list to see how many winter items the can spot outside.

    Incentivize — Nothing will endear outdoor winter play to kids like cooking outside with the family. Bring thermoses of hot chocolate or tea or cook hot dogs and s’mores over a fire.

    How to Get Kids to Play Outside in the Rain

    Dress Properly – Rain boots, raincoats/ponchos, and umbrellas

    Turn Water into a Toy – One way to get kids excited about outside play is to make it okay to get messy. Jump in puddles, make mudpies, and hunt for worms. You can also build a rain catcher to measure how many inches it rains and have boat races using leaves, nut shells or twigs.

    Incentivize – Reward your kids at the end of a long day’s play in the rain with a warm bath and big fluffy towel.

    How (And Why) to Find Some Outside Activities of Your Own

    A national study of 771 US children and their parents found that the kids whose parents participate in outdoor activities tend to spend more time playing outside, too.5 According to the study, adults often get hung up on the definition of “authentic” and “pure” nature, but for kids, nature is anything outside their door. When thinking about how to get yourself to do more stuff outside, remember you don’t have to hike a mountain or kayak down a river to benefit from nature. There are activities you can do right in your own neighborhood or backyard.
  • Plant and care for native plants
  • Walk your dog
  • Create a habitat for birds in your yard or in a community garden
  • No local community garden? Start one with your neighbors.
  • Take a walking tour to admire the front yards or holiday decorations in your neighborhood
  • Window shop
  • Resources to Learn More

    guide illustration of flowers

    Children and Nature Network Research Library – A source for peer-reviewed scientific literature that makes the case for engaging children with nature.

    The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain – From Parenting Science, the website of Gwen Dewar, Ph.D, who is trained in evolutionary anthropology, behavioral ecology, primatology, and comparative psychology.

    The Liink Project – An innovative school model from Texas Christian University based on improved brain development as a result of physical activity and outdoor exposure throughout the day, and character development taught daily.

    IPA-USA – An interdisciplinary non-governmental organization providing advocacy for the promotion of play opportunities for children

    Recess Advocacy with Summer Belloni – Episode 45 of Happy Outdoor Families, the podcast that encourages and equips families to spend more time exploring and playing together outside.

     

    Sources

    1. Yogman, M. (2018, September 1). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/142/3/e20182058/38649/The-Power-of-Play-A-Pediatric-Role-in-Enhancing
    2. Kellert, S., Case, D., Escher, D., Witter, D., Mikels-Carrasco, J., & Seng, P. (2017, April). The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection. Natureofamericans.Org. https://natureofamericans.org/
    3. Brussoni, M., Lin, Y., Han, C., Janssen, I., Schuurman, N., Boyes, R., Swanlund, D., & Mâsse, L. C. (2020). A qualitative investigation of unsupervised outdoor activities for 10- to 13-year-old children: “I like adventuring but I don’t like adventuring without being careful.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 70, 101460. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101460
    4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018) Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physical-activity/physical-activity-guidelines/current-guidelines
    5. Kellert, S., Case, D., Escher, D., Witter, D., Mikels-Carrasco, J., & Seng, P. (2017, April). The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection. Natureofamericans.Org. https://natureofamericans.org/

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