Wednesdays were getting tough for Zenovia Stephens’ family. Her five-year-old son was coming home from school cranky, not wanting to play with his little brother and struggling with the transition. So she ditched her car and began walking him home from school, leaving lots of time for play as they made their way back.
He was happier by the time they made it home, and the more afternoons they spent this way, the better adjusted he became. It turns out that Stephens, founder of Black Kids Adventures, landed on a remedy that not only worked for her family but is also backed by science: that maximizing daytime sunlight is critical for kids’ health.
Most parents are aware of the behavioral benefits of getting kids outside, from easier bedtimes to fewer sibling squabbles. But research shows that the actual sunlight children are exposed to also has major biological impacts on a child’s mood, sleep, and physical health. Even better: Sunlight can offset the negative impacts of artificial blue light from all those devices your kids are probably using.
Here’s more about why sunlight matters, and how you can maximize the benefits of fun in the sun.
The science behind sunlight
Not all light is created equal. Parents have heard again and again to avoid blue light, and it’s true that exposure to artificial blue light from devices at night can do a number on a child’s daily rhythms. But sunlight is also packed with this much-discussed wavelength, and both types of light have major impacts on a child’s circadian clock.
This internal mechanism that regulates your body’s rhythms is intimately connected to light. According to Helen J. Burgess, psychiatry professor and codirector of the Sleep and Circadian Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, light affects everything from when to be alert and when to power down, to how hungry you are through the day.
The reason artificial blue light in devices can be so harmful in the evening is that it mimics the sun’s natural blue light—which confuses the body’s circadian clock. A study led by Monique LeBourgeois, associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, showed that viewing artificial blue light in the evening will push sleep-inducing melatonin hormones down drastically, disrupting bedtimes and affecting daytime behavior. But getting that same blue light from the sun, which contains a health-boosting full spectrum of light, does the opposite—and so much more.
LeBourgeois explains that the more daytime blue light a person gets, the better defense they have against the harms of evening blue light from screens. She adds that packing the day with sunshine creates a blue-light build-up that helps counteract the consequences of that artificial light at night. In other words, the more sunlight exposure a child gets during the day, the better their brain can build a wall against the harms of artificial blue light later.
That’s not the only benefit of sunlight exposure. The vitamin D your body produces when absorbing ultraviolet light from the sun can help with bone development, disease prevention, and a healthy nervous system. The same process also produces serotonin, a chemical that aids brain function and improves mood and happiness. On top of that, natural blue light has been shown to protect against nearsightedness for kids, ease the symptoms of mental health conditions like ADHD, and lower blood pressure.
Ideas to sneak in some sunshine
Experts agree that exposing kids to more sunlight can improve their mental and physical health—and research suggests anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes of outdoor play a day is enough to see major results. The challenge, of course, is finding time for these sunlight-centered activities. According to preliminary data from an upcoming study led by LeBourgeois, five- to six-year-olds are spending about 82 percent of their waking hours inside during the school year.
The good news is that short outdoor activities can still bring major benefits. “It’s not always about going on an epic adventure,” says Adrianna Skori, CEO of Kids Who Explore. Instead, experts suggest finding ways to expose kids to sunlight through your daily activities. Here are 10 ideas.
Greet the day. Let kids run wild for a few minutes after they wake up. If you’re on a schedule, set a timer and let your kids know at the start that they have 10 minutes to spend outside before getting ready for the day.
Commute in the open air. Leave your car at home and choose transportation that will keep you outside. Walk or bike your kids to school each day to make sure they have the greatest chance to be out in the sun without adding an extra step to your schedule.
Take a moment. Every minute really does make a difference. You may not have time for a trip to the park every day, but letting your kids spend five or 10 minutes at the school playground after pick-ups can pay dividends.
Bring an art project. Set your kids up with a craft to do outside while you’re cooking dinner. Watch out the window as they draw a chalk masterpiece or paint pet rocks in the backyard.
Eat outside. Invest in a picnic table or a patio set—or just grab a blanket—and take your breakfast and dinner outside to get those extra rays while you eat. Bringing your food out of the dining room will set your kids up for a great rest of their day and a deep night’s sleep.
Go for an after-dinner walk. Get evening meals on the table a few minutes early so you can take your family outside for a stroll around the neighborhood, or even just down the street and back. Or …
Organize a neighborhood block walk. Plan to meet up weekly with other families for a quick walk around the block. “It’s a nice way to catch up with friends, be outside, and let the kids just run around for a while,” says Sara McCarty, founder and editor-in-chief of Run Wild My Child.
Bask in the sun at home. If you’re still stuck inside despite your best intentions, choose an indoor activity that brings your kids under a big window with lots of light—and away from screens. Keep the connection to nature strong by substituting typical toys with their natural equivalents, like using branches or rocks to build instead of blocks.
Turn chores into adventures. Involve kids in outdoor responsibilities at home so they can soak in some rays at the same time. Have them walk the mail to the mailbox in the evening or sweep the porch in the morning.
Mark your calendar. Gamify your outdoor time by setting up a tracking calendar for your family. Write down your morning and afterschool minutes, compare weeks, and take note of what’s impacting your outdoor time each day to find helpful trends.