Children’s temperaments linked to time spent outdoors

By Jessamine Luck, Intern, Communications & Public Affairs

Child temperament – a child’s behavioural characteristics, reactions and disposition – has recently gained attention for its influence on health outcomes. It’s been shown to be related to child obesity, eating patterns, TV habits, behavioural disorders, sleep and even dental cavities.

Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) set out to determine whether temperament was related to an area that hasn’t been examined before – outdoor play. The findings are published in Academic Pediatrics.

Free play in outdoor environments is important not only for keeping kids active but also to improve sleep, attention, imagination, social relations and reduce symptoms of disease such as asthma and chronic pain.

The team assessed temperament scores for “surgency” and “negative affectivity” for 3,393 children aged one to five gathered by the TARGet Kids! Network ( Surgency is characterized by higher levels of activity, seeking closeness with others and showing positive emotional reactions to high-intensity stimuli (such as running, swinging, playing in loud or bright environments, etc.) Negative affectivity is characterized by expressing negative emotional reactions and showing discomfort in new or high-stimulus situations.

The findings show young children with higher scores for surgency spent more time playing outdoors. They also found that in boys – but not girls – higher scores for negative affectivity were associated with less time in outdoor play. “Outdoor play provides high-stimulus opportunities for children to be active and explore new experiences” says Senior Investigator Dr. Catherine Birken, Staff Paediatrician and Scientist at SickKids. “However, we were interested to see that difference in sex is a significant factor. This may reflect parents’ different reactions to negative affectivity in girls versus boys.”

The researchers note there could be many reasons for these relationships. Children with high extraversion may be requesting to go outdoors, parents may send them outdoors sensing their enjoyment of high-intensity activities or increased time outdoors could lead to more positive feelings towards high-intensity activities. Likewise, boys who show negative feelings to high-intensity situations may be requesting more quiet indoor activities, they may be kept indoors to avoid negative emotional reactions or boys who have less opportunities for outdoor play may be seen as having higher negative affectivity.

Guidelines state that toddlers (one to two years old) and preschoolers (three to four years old) should accumulate at least 180 minutes of physical activity at any intensity spread throughout the day, including, including activities that develop movement skills in different environments, with progression toward at least 60 minutes of energetic play by five years of age. Keeping the relationships between child temperament and physical activity in mind would be helpful for parents, caregivers and public health programs trying to encourage early outdoor play in young children.

This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, SickKids Foundation, St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and the Academic Pediatric Association through the Resident Investigator Award grant program. This research is an initiative of TARGet Kids!, a primary care research network co-led by SickKids and St. Michael’s Hospital.

It is an example of how SickKids and St. Michael’s Hospital are contributing to making Ontario Healthier, Wealthier and Smarter.


The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)