The Benefits of outdoor play for children
THINKING ABOUT YOUR OWN CHILDHOOD
Think about your favourite place to be as a child, where you most loved to play outdoors. Take yourself there for a few moments… notice everything you can about that place – its size, its shape, what the light was like, any special smells, any sounds that remind you of it, any special features of it that you treasure… What was it about this place that you loved?
The delights of the outdoors are among the deepest, most passionate joys of childhood. Very often, adults remember and draw inspiration from magical experiences in natural outdoor settings as their strongest, most powerful memories. The outdoors was, for many of us, an invaluable place for learning. It provided opportunities for us as children to explore, to discover and to develop an understanding of the nature around us.
Along with an instinctive drive to play, young children have particularly deep connections with nature and the outdoors. Sadly, if this is not encouraged, children may not maintain these connections as they get older.
The outdoors gives children unique opportunities for:
Experience with all their senses
Art, science, mathematics, language
Developing social skills
Building and constructing with sand, water and mud
Research has shown that children these days are missing out on these kinds of opportunities. There are many reasons for this such as lack of time and safe spaces for play, a lack of awareness of the benefits for children of playing outdoors as well as negative attitudes about playing outside on the part of some adults. The number of hours children spend on screens – using tablets, phones, computer games and watching TV – has also grown significantly.
WHAT CAN THE OUTDOORS OFFER?
There are lots of benefits for young children when they can spend as much time as possible playing outside in interesting outdoor environments. Young children learn through the type of place or environment they are in. When they are outside, children have the freedom to shout and make noise, the space to be more expansive in their physical movements, which sparks their imaginations, and more places to hide in and explore. Children can also be messier outdoors, which encourages them to be more creative and to try things out and experiment. Richard Louv, author of eight books about the connections between family, nature and the community, says that
‘children who play outside are less likely to get sick, to be stressed or become aggressive and are more adaptable to life’s unpredictable turns’.
Children get lots of physical exercise outside through activities like running, climbing, digging and swinging. Spending a lot of time getting physical exercise outdoors when they are young helps children to develop positive lifestyle habits that are good for their health generally, and also helps to prevent obesity. Children also get lots of vitamin D from sunlight, which is vital for strong bones and teeth and a healthy immune system. Research shows that movement and thinking skills are powerfully connected. Movement and activity encourages brain growth and improves children’s attention and their memory.
‘The more you keep children sitting, the less attentive they become.’ Dr Tony Pelligrini, American Education Researcher
Children’s well-being and their ability to understand as well as to control their feelings and emotions also increases from being outdoors as they relax and feel calm. Free play has been shown to help children to heal from stress and trauma in the same way as being able to cry does.