photograph by Cavan Images / Getty Images
photograph by Cavan Images / Getty Images

Playing it safe while getting cooped-up kids outside

How to keep children safe outdoors during the pandemic, plus 10 ideas for fresh-air fun

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Playgrounds have become the new ghost towns.

Throughout the country, most states plus the District of Columbia have issued “stay-at-home” orders for their residents, meaning that people should stay in their houses except for essential needs like going to the grocery store. Cities are shutting down parks, playgrounds, beaches, and other recreational areas. The CDC has even updated guidelines to recommend that everyone wear cloth masks while in public.

Which begs the question: Are kids allowed to go outside anymore? And if they are, is it even safe?

Absolutely. Thankfully, most of the stay-at-home orders consider getting outside for limited recreational time “essential.” And experts agree that as long as parents are vigilant about social distancing (maybe you’ve heard of it?), allowing kids to have outdoor time is nothing but healthy.

“It’s also so important at a time like this,” says Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician with Boston Children’s Hospital. “Getting out makes us all feel less cooped up and scared.”

We all just need to play it safe. Here’s how.

The need for outdoor play

Before you encase your child in plastic wrap and lock her inside forever, remember that getting kids outdoors is simply good for their health.

According to Sarah Milligan Toffler, executive director of the Children and Nature Network, a growing body of research is showing that regularly interacting with nature improves brain function. Studies point to nature helping to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, and boost the immune system.

Outdoor play also helps children increase important motor skills. To write and draw, kids need to develop small hand muscles. “That’s what’s happens when they dig in the dirt,” says Christy Merrick, director of Natural Start Alliance in Washington, D.C., an organization that encourages outdoor experiences with children. “Safe tree climbing develops balance as well as the large muscles in arms and legs.” (Just make sure, she says, to stay close and let them climb to a height appropriate for their age and abilities.)

Playing outside can even help children spur creativity skills, important for a developing brain. “It gives them a chance to pretend, make up games, and manage unstructured time,” McCarthy says.

Keeping children safe outside

Information about the virus and how it spreads seems to change every day. That makes it confusing to know what to do to keep kids safe outside. Here’s what the experts are saying right now.

The new golden rule: Stay. Six. Feet. Apart.

Of course, this is always easier said than done, especially when you’re dealing with energetic children. If you don’t have a front or backyard, find a neighborhood athletic field or large grassy area where kids have plenty of space for distancing.

No fields nearby? “As a family, you can go for walks, kick a ball, or ride bikes,” McCarthy says. “Just remember to be thoughtful and creative to maintain safe distances from others.”

And what about those passersby who might not be paying attention on the sidewalk? It’s theoretically possible for a droplet to land on you if someone coughs as he passes. But it’s highly unlikely, McCarthy says. “It all depends on your position, the wind, if you’re in motion, and other physics,” she says. “However, the chances of catching something this way are pretty small. Keep your distance and be vigilant about the whereabouts of your children.”

You can also create social distancing games to help children remember how to act.

• Measure out six feet. Have your child count how many steps, hops, or jumps it takes to travel that far. Then when someone comes close, remind your child to take that many steps back.

• Have kids pretend they have a six-foot-wide force field around them. Then remind them to activate it when they pass someone or see a friend.

• Play “statue” in someone’s driveway to give others room to pass.

Avoid monkey bars. That goes for slides, swings, and the rest of it. Because the virus might be able to live on hard surfaces for a few days, most experts recommend staying away from playgrounds, even if they’re open. “You have no way of knowing who or when the last person was on the play equipment or benches,” McCarthy says. “Be mindful that those things could have the virus on them.”

Stick with your kids. This of course depends on the child’s age and maturity, but we can’t always trust excited tykes to follow the rules. “The safest approach is to be with them,” McCarthy says. “Children have a way of forgetting new rules and slipping back into old habits. Even when they’re riding bikes, they’ll end up next to each other. They want to talk or wait together to cross a street.”

To mask or not to mask: On April 3, the CDC began recommending that people wear masks anytime they’re in public, especially in places where social distancing is difficult to maintain. That applies to children two years old and up. But they can still go out and play. McCarthy says she and her family are bringing masks along with them whenever they go outside. “You can quickly put on the masks if you are unable to keep a safe distance from other people.” (Here’s what you should know about DIY masks.)

Making children feel safe outside

Seeing playgrounds shut down and not being allowed to hang out with friends can be upsetting to kids—and maybe a little scary. (Even adults are a bit spooked by the sudden appearance of face masks on neighbors.) It’s OK to be honest with your child about why these precautions are necessary.

“Explain that right now a germ is spreading from one person to another and making some people very sick,” McCarthy says. “To keep everyone safe, we’re trying to stay away from other people so it can't spread.” (Here’s how to talk to your kids about coronavirus.)

It’s also an opportunity to dispel some myths that might be noodling in your kid’s noggin. For instance, you can’t get the virus from someone from across the street. And just because a person coughs, it doesn’t mean that person has COVID-19.

New ways to play outside

Now that children can’t rely on their friends to play outside, many parents are feeling pressure to stimulate that activity. “Parents worry they don’t have outside activities for their kids, but the reality is children naturally know how to play,” Merrick says.

The key is to create opportunities for outdoor play. For instance, “turn walks into scavenger hunts,” Merrick says. “Look for colors and shapes in your neighborhood. Watch and listen for birds, insects, and other animals.”

Here are some other ideas for creative outdoor play.

• Look for found stuff in your yard or house that kids can stack, build, and sort, and let kids take the lead. Add some old dolls or action figures to inspire creative play, and carry the toys outside in a box or basket for easy cleanup.

• Take a hula hoop outside. After your child’s done swirling, toss it on the grass or concrete. “Go on safari inside the hula hoop,” Merrick says. “Have your child report on what they find in the circle.” If you don’t have a hula hoop, use a jump rope or string, or even some sticks.

• Make a yummy outdoor science experiment using the sun as an oven. For instance, let kids figure out how to make s’mores in the sun.

• Sidewalk chalk art. Draw the entire family, including the pets. Trace shadows throughout the day to see how they move. Write greetings to people who might walk by later.

• Have your child make a color wheel with markers or crayons. (If they’re younger, they can just scribble different colors on paper.) Then take it outside to find matching colors.

• Select leaves and flower petals from your yard. Give children some paper and let them draw with the petals and leaves.

• Need to tire kids out before a conference call? Have them set up an outdoor relay, backyard Olympics, obstacle course, or a dance party.

• Challenge them to extend their outdoor play by seeing how many times they can toss a ball in the air or keep a game of toss going.

• Don’t forget the classics, like four-square and hopscotch.