Encouraging Outdoor Play: The Benefits for Children’s Development
As parents, it can be easy to focus on academic and dietary needs when it comes to our children’s development. However, we must not overlook the importance of playtime, particularly outdoor play.
Playing outdoors has many physical and psychological benefits for children, including;
- reduced risk of myopia (nearsightedness),
- exposure to natural daylight which causes vitamin D production,
- an increase in movements such as running, jumping and climbing improves physical strength and fitness,
- better mood and improved concentration,
- opportunities to learn social skills,
- a naturally attuned sleep rhythm,
- an improved appetite,
- a chance to develop a lifelong connection with nature.
In this article, we will explore the benefits of outdoor play for children’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development, and provide tips on how to encourage children to engage in outdoor play.
Importance of Outdoor Play
Outdoor play is a critical component of children’s development. Playtime is not just for fun; it is also crucial for children’s overall well-being. Outdoor play helps children to develop their creativity, problem-solving skills, and sense of curiosity. Additionally, running and shouting are not only enjoyable but also beneficial to children’s physical and mental health. Outdoor play in its various forms helps children to learn about the world around them and, in turn, learn about themselves.
The Physical Benefits
Researchers aren’t sure why time outdoors reduces the risk of nearsightedness in children, but one possibility could be that it gives the eyes a break from ‘close work’ such as reading or looking at a smartphone. Another reason could be that the eyes benefit from exposure to bright daylight. Even on an overcast day, the light we encounter outside far exceeds the light we experience when indoors. Adequate exposure to sunlight also helps children to get enough vitamin D which helps bone growth, muscle function and supports the development of a strong immune system.
Playing outside encourages children to be more physically active and helps to develop their gross motor skills, coordination and balance. Running, jumping and climbing can help to prevent childhood obesity, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve cardiovascular health.
Well-being and Social Benefits
Natural settings can calm the mind and help us to feel happy and relaxed. Exposure to sunlight increases serotonin levels which can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Playing outside also provides an opportunity for children to release energy, and giving them the freedom to explore and take risks helps them to develop independence, confidence and resilience. If children never take risks when climbing a tree, how will they ever learn to climb it?
Playing with other children outside naturally promotes a lot of social interaction. Communication skills are developed as children share their thoughts, ideas and feelings with each other. As they play games, and sports, and engage in imaginative play with their peers, they are learning about teamwork, negotiation and conflict resolution. They also need to share, take turns and respect each others’ boundaries; all important life skills to learn.
Helping With Sleep
Children of 3-5 years need 10-13 hours of sleep each night, children of 6-12 years need 9-12 hours, and teenagers need 8-10. If a child is sleep deprived they may become irritable, moody, and struggle to cope with day-to-day tasks. Daily exercise is a good way of ensuring a better night’s sleep, even better is daily exercise outdoors in the fresh air and natural light. Exercise releases endorphins into the bloodstream and can help with the production of melatonin which makes us feel sleepy. Research has shown that moderate to vigorous physical activity in childcare settings increased from 1% indoors to as much as 17% outdoors leading to more endorphin production and consequently a better night’s sleep.
A Healthy Appetite
A lack of physical activity can also be one of the reasons for poor appetite in children. As children are growing, they need a lot of outdoor play for good overall development and that also helps to work up an appetite. Walking, running, jumping, and playing sports, can all help to increase their appetites, whereas sedentary activities such as watching television or playing computer games for long periods of time will burn fewer calories and mean they’re less hungry as a result.
Teaching Environmental Awareness
Spending time outside nurtures children’s appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Encouraging an early connection with nature will lay the foundation for lifelong respect and care for the environment and the planet as a whole.
By spending a lot of time outdoors children will gain knowledge about the environment, such as plants, animals, seasons and the weather, through first-hand valuable experiences – the best way to learn.
But how do we encourage children to play outside?
Here are some suggestions for toys that will help to entice them away from their screens and outdoors instead;
National Geographic Air Rocket Racers is an exciting toy children will love playing with. You have to jump on the launch pad to send rockets soaring into the air which will not only get children moving but with a learning guide included, also teaches them about the science of motion and aerodynamics. Children can practise their problem-solving skills, develop fine and gross motor skills, and work as a team, all while being active outdoors. There are so many positives to this super fun toy.
Seekers Scavenger Hunt Starter Kit is a waterproof game, ideal for outdoor scavenger hunts, that really engages children as they explore the great outdoors. The game is great for developing observational and literacy skills. As children hunt for insects, animals, leaves, spiderwebs etc, they can also read, or sound out, the names written underneath the pictures on the cards. A sociable game that also encourages children to work together and take turns.
Xootz Bubble-Go Scooter is a scooter that makes bubbles – what’s not to like?! A really fun way to encourage children outside, while also helping to develop their coordination, balance and gross motor skills. The footplate is wide and textured giving it extra stability and a rear brake gives children complete control.
National Geographic River Rock Craft Kit is a set for budding artists that can be used indoors and out. Children can be creative with this set that includes some rocks to get them started, paints, googly eyes, stickers and a guidebook including design ideas and ‘Story Stone’ ideas. When the rocks have run out children will need to go hunting for more in the garden, at the park, or the beach, and they could even leave some of their finished masterpieces in the local community for others to find and take home.
If it is a real struggle to coax children away from their devices, technology could actually help to support children’s experiences and learning in nature. Geocaching (treasure hunts and hide & seek games using GPS) and games like Pokemon Go are popular and a good way to entice children into nature who aren’t usually keen to do so.
However, when using devices to support children’s learning, it’s important to strike a balance between screen time and real-world outdoor experiences.
Benefits of Playing Outside
Playing outside has numerous benefits for children. Exposure to nature can have a soothing effect on children and can reduce hyperactivity, especially in those with ADHD. Time spent playing outside can also help to improve your child’s ability to focus in the classroom and foster more positive relationships among their peer group.
The Science Behind Outdoor Play
Research shows that natural sunlight allows our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which releases the chemical serotonin in the brain, helping to regulate emotion and mood. Since Vitamin D is not found in many of our foods, a lack of time spent outdoors puts children at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. Additionally, being allowed to play outdoors offers an escape for children and can help to bring stress and anxiety levels down by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol in the brain.
In conclusion, outdoor play is an essential part of children’s development. By encouraging outdoor play, we can help children to develop valuable life skills, improve their mental health and well-being, and foster positive relationships among their peer groups.
It is crucial that adults recognise the importance of playing outside in nurturing healthy and well-rounded children. Encouraging outdoor play provides them with invaluable opportunities for growth and learning, and is also a lot of fun. So let’s switch off those devices and get out in the sunshine (or rain)!