Using Outdoor Play to Build Social Skills

Slowly but surely, it’s starting to feel like spring. After a particularly snowy winter, we’ve all gotten used to being cooped up inside. Many children have grown accustomed to spending weekends playing video games, watching movies, or finding other ways to stay entertained in the house. But now that things are starting to warm up, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t start switching to more outdoor activities. Not only is it nice to change things up, but there are also social benefits to getting out and getting active.

These benefits can include better concentration, and a better ability to handle stress. Research also suggests that outdoor play leads to improved impulse control and less aggression. I definitely see this in my own children. If we are all in the house and the kids are getting a bit cranky and stir crazy we always head outside. Whether it is a little game of soccer, some gardening or chicken care it is only a matter of time before everyone feels happy and is having fun.

Author John J. Ratey, MD in his book The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain discusses how exercise influences learning at the cellular level.  It also increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates neurotransmitters that are needed for attention, learning and happiness. This is a big help to children when they’re interacting with their friends. I think we can all agree that it’s much easier to socialize when we are in a good mood and can focus on what others are saying. While you probably won’t see a total turnaround in your child’s social skills just by encouraging outdoor play, odds are it won’t hurt.

On the other hand, we know lack of real play does hurt children. Children need to use their imagination to develop their creative thinking and problem solving skills. Plus, outdoor play makes it much easier for children to play together than most indoor activities. It’s true that they can watch TV together in the house. But watching TV doesn’t allow kids to practice important skills like taking turns, agreeing on rules, negotiating, and conflict resolution. A lot of popular outdoor games both allow and require kids to work together and communicate in order for everyone to have fun.

And there is another benefit to being outside playing. There is a bacterium in soil that has been found to increase serotonin in the brain and improve mood. So relax and let them get dirty. They are actually getting smarter and happier!

Here are a few outdoor games that reinforce important social skills:

  1. Freeze Tag: This variation on traditional tag calls for children to freeze when they are tagged by the person who is “it.” The only way to get unfrozen is to be tagged by another player who has not been frozen. The game ends when “it” is able to freeze all the players. Social skills enforced by the game include patience, rule-following, taking turns, and team work.
  2. Red Light, Green Light: The game calls for one person to stand a good distance from the rest of the group with his back turned. When he says “green light” the other players run toward him. When he says “red light” he turns around, and the other players must freeze. Anyone who doesn’t freeze must return to the finish line. Social skills enforced include listening and following directions.
  3. Any kind of imaginative play: Sometimes children have the most fun when there is no organized game. This way they can invent their own stories and scenarios. Allowing your child to explore his (or her) imagination with their friends will help them with creative thinking and problem solving.



Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More