Half of U.S. Preschoolers Play Outside Daily

About half of U.S. preschoolers are playing outside daily with a parent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that 3-5-year-olds get at least 2 hours of physical activity every day. However, most children are not meeting those recommendations.

A recent study found that kids at a child care center average 48 minutes of active play every day. The study found that children were more active when they were outdoors and given the opportunity for unstructured play. However, the researchers found that the children only spent 33 minutes outdoors even though most childcare centers schedule 60 minutes of outdoor play daily.

These results indicate that children may not be getting enough physical activity simply because they are not given enough opportunities (Tandon et al., 2015). And being outdoors is the easiest and perhaps the most reliable strategy you can use to get your kids moving.

This is huge! Although it’s not always simple, getting your children outdoors daily can have a huge impact on their physical health.

So, what do we know about getting our kids outside?

The study I’ve reviewed for you today is all about the average American family and their ability to get their preschoolers outside. Be sure to read through the research section! You’ll find some very interesting statistics!

Everyday Takeaways from Science

  • One of the best ways to encourage outdoor play for your littles is to develop relationships with other moms in your community. Preschoolers are much more likely (36%) to play outdoors daily if they have regular playdates with at least one other child.
  • The more hours/week the mom works, the less likely preschoolers play outside. Simply being aware of this is huge! I know that most of us work, so we have to be purposeful and plan outdoor play, otherwise, it won’t happen.
  • Moms are more likely to get the kids outside than Dads. Score one for moms!
  • Boys are getting outside more often than girls. Let’s change that!

Your Ray of Sunshine!

Our everyday actions matter! It may be a logistical nightmare to get your children (especially young children) outside, but know that science supports your efforts! Not only will your child have more opportunities for physical exercise, the “unstructured” part of outdoor play has amazing psychological benefits for kids!

What do you do to get your kids outside? Do you notice a difference in their behaviors or mood? Share yourr comments below or on my Facebook page. 

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The Research

The sample for this study came from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. This national, longitudinal study represented 10,700 children who were born in the US in 2001. The sample represented the US population. The researchers looked at data from when these participants were preschoolers to answer the following questions: 1) how often do parents supervise outdoor play for their preschoolers, and 2) what children are more at risk for less frequent parent-supervised outdoor play?

The parents were asked, “In the past month, how often did you take [child] outside for a walk or to play in the yard, a park, or a playground?” Possible responses included: once a day or more, few times a week, few times a month, rarely, or not at all.

The following variables were studied in addition to daily outdoor play: child’s gender, number of regular playmates, screen time, type of primary child care arrangement, mother’s race/ethnicity, mother’s employment status/hours per week worked, parents’ reported exercise frequency, and highest educational attainment in the household. The study did not take into account season, climate, or geographic region which can have a large impact on getting outside.


From the study sample, 51% of all preschoolers went outside daily with a parent. (Of the preschoolers who were not in child care, 58% went outside daily with a parent.) Mothers were more likely to take their preschoolers outside to play (44%) than fathers (24%). Some mothers (15%) and fathers (30%) didn’t even take their children out to play weekly.

Variables that had a Positive Affect on Children Going Outside Daily

The following variables had a significant influence on the frequency of outdoor play for preschoolers: if the child was male, if the child had regular, the mothers’ race/ethnicity, mothers’ hours worked per week, and the parents’ exercise frequency

Gender: Female preschoolers were 15% less likely to play outside daily than males. This could be a result of societal expectations that boys should be outside more, that girls are viewed as less athletic and taken outside less, that boys prefer to be outside more, or variables that have not yet been identified.

Regular Playmates: Preschoolers were 36% more likely to play outside daily if they had 1-2 playmates. Preschoolers that had 3 or more playmates were twice as likely to play outside than children who did not have regular playmates. This suggests that tapping into community networks could help parents overcome some of the barriers to getting children to play outdoors.

Mothers’ Race/Ethnicity: Compared to white mothers, Asian mothers were 49% less likely, African American mothers were 41% less likely, and Hispanic mothers were 20% less likely to take their preschoolers outside daily to play. This may suggest cultural differences that need to be further explored by researchers (and by individual moms!).

Mothers’ Hours of Work: Mothers who worked full time were 30% less likely to take their preschoolers outside daily while part-time working mothers were only 18% less likely to take their kids outside daily. This suggests that logistics and time are important barriers to getting outside. It also suggests that parents may assume their children are getting outdoor experiences at day care and therefore do not prioritize free play outdoors.

Mothers’ Exercise: Mothers who exercised 4 or more times per week were 50% more likely to take their kids outside daily when compared to mothers who reported that they did not exercise. This not surprising. Moms who are physically active are more likely to take their kids along for walks, runs, hikes, etc.

Mothers’ Level of Education: The more educated the parents were, the less likely they were to take their preschoolers outside daily.

Childcare: Preschoolers who spent time in childcare were less likely to be taken outside daily by their parents. From this sample, 80% of preschoolers were involved in some kind of nonparental care and spent, on average, 28.5 hours per week in childcare.

Variables that did not Affect Children Going Outside Daily

No significant relationship was found between frequency of outdoor play and screen time, household income, mother’s marital status, or parents’ perception of neighborhood safety.

Screen Time: The results showed that screen time (average of 3.78 hours a day) did not displace outdoor play time. This supports the idea that active and sedentary behaviors are not necessarily inversely related.

Safety: This study showed that safety concerns were not a significant barrier for parents getting their kids outside because most mothers said they felt safe in their neighborhoods. Other studies have found that kids still played outside even when the parents viewed the neighborhood as unsafe. This topic remains unclear.


This study was limited in that it didn’t account for seasonal, climatic, or geographic differences. The researchers did not assess how long the preschoolers played outside. Lastly, many parents may have reported that their kids went outside more frequently than they actually did because of social desirability bias.



This study gives us some interesting insights into the average American family and the frequency (or should I say infrequency) that young children are being exposed to nature on a daily basis – 51%.

I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure how to feel about that number. Part of me is surprised. Before reading this study, I would have assumed it to be less (and it certainly could be less if parents reported this information incorrectly). But the other part of me is sad. If only half of US preschoolers are playing outside, then that means that we’re perpetuating the problem that children are not developing a love and appreciation for nature. If they don’t develop it when they’re young, they may never develop it at all.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Jenny



Tandon, P.S., Zhou, C., Christakis, D.A. (2012). Frequency of parent-supervised outdoor play of US preschool-aged children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 166(8))707-712.

Other References

Tandon, P.S., Saelens, B.E., Christakis, D.A. (2015). Active play opportunities at child care. Pediatrics. 135(6) 1425-1431.

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