Why won't my kids play outside?

Getting creative outdoors.
Getting creative outdoors. Photo: Getty Images

It must be annoying for many parents today who hear stories from older folk like me about how we played outdoors for hours on end leaving our parents to get on with things in peace and quiet.

I know for me it was seriously magical having a quiet house when the Dent lads were playing outside, especially on the bush block next door. I frequently brought them snacks too, so they had no need to come inside!

But what do we do when children don't want to play outside? Some kids just seem to prefer making a mess inside (or staring at devices) rather than exploring the great outdoors.

One desperate mum, who messaged me this week, said she had all the things that should be exciting for her kids outside, like a cubby, sandpit, swing and trampoline but still they're driving her spare inside the house.

It used to be easy for our parents to just 'kick us out' to play because we were in the habit of playing outside. We are all creatures of habit and our kids are no different. The habitual way of living gets entrenched (although kids seem to resist healthy habits around eating, cleaning teeth and going to bed).

If playing inside has been a frequent occurrence in your house, it becomes like the social norm of your family. Changing social norms can happen, however, it takes some time and effort.

I would suggest first, come clean as parents and have a family meeting expressing your concerns that the kids have too much time inside, which is seeing the house as a playground.

Mention that it's healthy for them to play outside in the fresh air (I would avoid mentioning the risks of obesity, poor self-regulation and developmental delays that come with too much time on screens, or being sedentary – heck they are just kids).

Then I'd ask for suggestions on how to 'spark' up the outside play possibilities. Some creative kids will come up with great ideas while others may just roll their eyes.

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When change happens too much too quickly it's normal for everyone to push back. So start in small ways – maybe as a family have a picnic or high tea outside and also invite extra kids over to double the fun.

Given your kids may be used to being around you inside, they may need your presence outside, while they are in transition. Maybe do some weeding, hang out washing, peel the potatoes for dinner or have your cuppa while somewhere nearby.

The first foray needs to be something really attention-grabbing, almost guaranteed to be a winner – so think really engaging, messy, noisy or silly.

Depending on age it could be a version of going on a 'bear hunt', a treasure hunt, a slip'n slide, a water balloon fight, or having loads of soft balls around, set up a shop or any real experience where they pretend to be grownups.

Essentially you need to create an attention-seeking experience that trumps being inside, as kids are wired to create play opportunities that make the neurotransmitters dopamine and endorphins.

When they have equipment that is already built like cubbies or forts, they are unable to move them around and sometimes this can stifle their creativity and enjoyment.

Having freedom to move, play and create are the real secrets to engaging play anywhere.

Start thinking along the line of 'loose parts' play theory, which might involve bringing old tyres, ropes, bamboo sticks, old sheets, river rocks, lengths of poly pipe, bits of wood or any number of treasures into the back yard … trust me this will magically draw children outside.

Old sinks make easy mud kitchens, planks of wood become construction sites and getting piles of sand or dry mud can also be just too enticing. Building tee pees and creating race tracks or jumps for bikes can also lure children, even older kids, outdoors – with great love.

Cardboard boxes can be amazingly successful as they can become almost anything. Making a city can take weeks and can have your kids wanting to bring friends and family over to admire their amazing work.

My boys had a large fridge box once and I heard them chatting as they went to sleep: 'I wonder what she will be tomorrow?' The box had already been a dungeon, a rocket and a pirate ship.

Another suggestion is to ask your kids to make something from scratch after showing them how to use tools safely. I heard of two brothers who built a boat that took months and gave their mum hours of peaceful joy.

Another family with girls built their own stage to run shows and it was a huge hit and an ongoing success. They even hosted a movie night under the stars.

Essentially to get your kids outside you need to progressively 'nudge' them with love and enthusiasm.  As they break the habit of indoor play, they'll start to embrace the outdoors.

Give it a go as it is seriously worth the effort to enjoy that hot cuppa and a Tim Tam in peace.