Is It Safe for Children to Be Playing Outside During COVID-19?

kids playing outside covid 19

Verywell / Catherine Song

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, and children are no exception. Suddenly, and without warning, COVID-19 turned their lives upside down in March of 2020. Daycares and schools closed their doors. Their day-to-day routines were upended. And their connection to the outside world was cut short.

Even though many things have begun to reopen and return to normal, things still aren’t the same—especially for kids. With the vaccine still out of reach for younger children, masks, distancing, and limited interactions are a "new normal" that kids continue to contend with.

The best way to protect yourself and others from the virus is to get the COVID-19 vaccine. However, since no vaccine is yet approved for kids under 12, families still need to be mindful of other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As parents, we are doing everything we can to make their lives as comfortable and full as we can as the pandemic continues. Doing so means weighing the risks of every activity we allow them to participate in. And the truth is, having a grasp on what is safe and what isn’t can get very confusing!

One area that has many parents confused is whether or not it's safe for their kids to enjoy the great outdoors and participate in outside activities.

In terms of COVID-19 transmission, outside spaces are safer than inside spaces. Still, exactly how to navigate these outside activities and make them as safe as possible can be difficult to understand.

It’s always best to turn to the experts. So, let’s look at what guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) tell us about children's outside activities.

What to Know About Outside Activities and COVID-19

When it comes to COVID-19 transmission, outside activities are safer than inside activities. There are a few basic reasons for this: outside spaces usually allow more room for social distancing, and outside spaces allow for optimal ventilation.

You are most likely to catch COVID-19 from what you breathe rather than what you touch or eat. Therefore, proper ventilation is essential. The more the air circulates, the less likely the virus particles that one person sneezed, coughed, or breathed out will end up in the air that you breathe in.

As the CDC explains, “Indoor spaces are more risky than outdoor spaces where it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation.” However, as the CDC points out, all activities pose some risk, so just holding an activity outside does not mean there is no risk of transmitting the virus.

Vaccinated vs. Unvaccinated

The CDC has updated its guidelines for fully vaccinated people, including adolescents and teens. Those who are more than two weeks beyond receiving their final COVID-19 vaccine doses may resume most activities, indoors and out, without social distancing or wearing a mask.

For unvaccinated people, the safest activities are outdoors with members of your immediate household or a small gathering with fully vaccinated family and friends. Unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks and socially distance.

As long as your family members are unvaccinated, minimizing their risk in outside spaces should also include making sure to practice social distancing, limiting the number of people you engage with, and wearing masks.

Masks For Children Older Than Two

Kids over 2 should continue to wear masks. A child rarely has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask; any concerns about this should be discussed with your pediatrician.

Even though masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated adults, you may want to continue wearing a mask in solidarity with your younger children.

What to Know About Kids and COVID-19 Transmission

In addition to understanding the best ways to engage in outside play during COVID-19, it’s important to understand the risk your child faces.

Although children—even the youngest ones—can become infected with COVID-19, their symptoms are generally milder than adults. Some children have no symptoms at all—though they still can be contagious if they are infected—and others have symptoms such as fever, cough, and fatigue.

Although less common, some children develop severe complications that require hospitalization, and some children have tragically passed away from COVID-19. In addition, though rare, children sometimes experience a syndrome several weeks after a COVID-19 infection called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). MIS-C causes rash, inflammation, and organ failure. MIS-C can be treated, but if it’s not treated promptly, it can be life-threatening.

But besides the risks that COVID-19 can have on your child, if your child becomes infected with COVID-19, they can pass it to your unvaccinated family members, extended family, and others in their community.

This is part of why it’s so important for you and your family to take COVID-19 precautions seriously, including during outside play.

Vaccines for Kids 12+

The CDC recommends that everyone 12 and over get the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is safe and effective in adolescents in preventing COVID-19 infection and transmission.

Factors That Make Outside Play Safer

In and of itself, just deciding to conduct an activity outside doesn’t necessarily make it risk-free. Outside spaces help immensely with the ventilation factor, but outside activities can be risky if other precautions aren’t also taken.

Therefore, it’s important to understand what other factors should be in place to make outdoor activities less risky and as safe as possible.

Decreasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission depends on several factors, according to the CDC, including:

  • How many people you are interacting with (the fewer people you interact with, the less of a chance you have of getting infected)
  • Whether the people you are around are vaccinated
  • Whether the people you are interacting with are social distancing (standing at least 6 feet from one another)
  • Whether the people you are interacting with are wearing masks
  • How long you are interacting (the longer you interact with others, the higher likelihood of infection)
  • What the community transmission rate is in your particular area (the higher the transmission rate, the higher the likelihood that someone you are with is infected)

So, in a nutshell, being outside with your immediate household would be the safest scenario. But meeting up with others in outside environments can be made safer by limiting the number of people, gathering only with those who are fully vaccinated, practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and checking the community transmission rates in your area before gathering.

Safer Outdoor Activities

The pandemic has taken so much from our children, which is why we should make the most of what we have and let our children participate in as many safer activities as possible. The good news is that most outside activities can be made safe for our children.

As the AAP points out, besides the need for our children to have a little fun, being outside is healthy for our children. It gets them moving, connects them to nature, promotes positive behavior, and enhances learning.

Outdoor activities are a safer “outside the house” activity and can be a safer way for kids to gather with others. Still, certain activities may be safer than others, and implementing some simple precautions can go a long way in making different activities as safe as possible.

Parks and Recreation Areas

Visiting parks, nature preserves, and other outside recreation areas is a wonderful way for your child to get out of the house, exercise, and connect with nature. Hiking, picnicking, taking a nature stroll, collecting rocks and flowers, and enjoying imaginative play are all great family activities.

Making a day at the park or recreation area safer means keeping a few basic things in mind, as described by the CDC:

  • Activities that involve your immediate family are safest.
  • Choosing locations with the fewest people possible is also smart.
  • If you are going to interact with others, make sure you maintain social distance and wear a mask.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
  • Visit parks and recreation areas close to home to minimize travel, which can expose you to the virus.

Playgrounds

Earlier in the pandemic, playgrounds were closed. Even though playgrounds have reopened, you might be unsure if the playground is a safe place for your child to play. Yet most of us really want to take our kids to the playground—it’s a great way for our kids to play, get exercise, and blow off steam.

So what’s the deal with playgrounds? Are they safe for kids? According to the CDC, it depends on a few different factors:

  • Look at how crowded a playground is. The more densely packed a group of children is, the harder social distancing can be.
  • Determine if people are wearing masks. If people are wearing masks, the risk of transmission is much lower.
  • Encourage kids not to touch their faces while playing and to wear a mask.
  • Wash your child's hands before and after playing either with soap and water or a hand sanitizer.

If you do choose to take your child to the playground, you might consider doing so when fewer kids are there (early or later in the day). Make sure to take hand sanitizer with you so that you can keep your child’s hands clean.

Another factor is the age and maturity of your child. For instance, maintaining distance can be really hard to do at a playground. Ask yourself if your child has the maturity to avoid playing with kids who are not wearing masks. Also, work with your kids on not touching their face or putting their hands in their mouth or eyes.

Recreational Sports

Youth sports are a fantastic way for your child to get exercise, bond with other kids, and mature and grow. Many sports leagues are back in the swing of things, and many schools have resumed extracurricular sports. The additional plus about sports is that most of them can be done outdoors, making them safer.

However, some factors should be taken into consideration when it comes to recreational sports for kids. As the AAP points out, some factors increase your risk while playing recreational sports:

  • Whether or not players and coaches are wearing masks
  • How many children are participating—the fewer, the better
  • Whether the sport is played indoors or outdoors (outdoors is safer)
  • How densely packed the children are and how able they are to socially distance while playing
  • How much direct contact is required for play (running/track is safer than contact sports like football or basketball)
  • The equipment used and whether players are sharing the equipment
  • How long any direct interaction takes place
  • Whether or not the team travels (traveling increases risk)

Outside Playdates

Allowing kids to play with their friends is important—social distancing and isolation can be very tough for children of all ages. However, many parents wonder if allowing their kids to have play dates with their peers is safe.

Unfortunately, most experts agree that indoor playdates and sleepovers are not the best idea, especially for younger unvaccinated kids. Limit playdates to a few kids whose families are in your "pod."

According to the CDC, the safest playdate for young, unvaccinated kids is a virtual one. If you choose to have an in-person playdate, the CDC advises having them with families who follow everyday safety precautions. Playdates are safer when:

  • They are held outdoors
  • Kids stay socially distanced and masked
  • They are infrequent
  • Kids wash or sanitize their hands frequently
  • Toys and play equipment are disinfected

It can be helpful to schedule outside activities that lend themselves to social distancing, such as hiking or bike riding. Organized outdoor activities like golfing or fitness classes can also allow your child to be close to their friends but maintain distance.

If your child doesn’t seem mature enough to have a safe outside playdate, you might want to consider a virtual playdate. It can take some getting used to, but even the youngest kids can get something out of saying hello to their friends on FaceTime or Zoom.

A Word from Verywell

Trying to keep our kids happy and also safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been without stress. As parents, it can be so upsetting to see our children suffer from loneliness and isolation. Thankfully, allowing our kids to play outside is one of the safest activities during the pandemic. That’s a good thing because most children thrive in outdoor spaces.

A positive attitude can go a long way: if parents normalize social distancing and mask-wearing, it’s more likely that our kids will accept it too. And all of these experiences are good ways to build up your child’s resilience as well as their empathy for others.

As hard as this all is, it won’t be forever. Like everything about this pandemic (and about parenting in general), it’s only for now. With love and support, our kids will be okay in the end.

 

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12 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 and your health. Updated June 11, 2021. 

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deciding to go out. Updated October 28, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim public health recommendations for fully vaccinated people. Updated May 28, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choosing safer activities. Updated May 28, 2021. 

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death by age group. Updated June 24, 2021. 

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For parents: Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19. Updated February 24, 2021. 

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. Updated May 27, 2021.

  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. Getting children and teens outside while physical distancing for COVID-19. Updated September 17, 2020.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visiting parks and recreational facilities. Updated July 30, 2020.

  10. American Academy of Pediatrics. Youth Sports and COVID-19: Understanding the Risks. Updated March 1, 2021.

  11. Harvard Medical School. Coronavirus outbreak and kids. Updated June 28, 2021.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Help stop the spread of COVID-19 in children. Updated September 17, 2020.