Play is an enjoyable activity that individuals voluntarily engage in for the purposes of relaxation, fun and adventure. It is self-directed and non-pervasive, thereby leading to feelings of pleasure, enjoyment and stress release. For children, play goes beyond just being a source of fun and relaxation. Play is the language children speak, it is the way the interact and explore the environment, thus, learning in the process. When children engage in play activities, whether directed or non-directed, the engage all their senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch). This brings about multisensory learning which far outweighs sitting in a formal classroom setting which information is being transmitted to them primarily through hearing and seeing.
Children’s outdoor play is being increasingly recognized as essential for their healthy development. This article brings to light the benefits of outdoor play on children’s physical health, mental well-being as well as cognitive and social development. It highlights the areas of development as well as the unique skills children acquire while engaging in outdoor play. Also projected is the need to change the trends, so children can have daily access to outdoor play.
Simply put, Outdoor play is a form of play activity(s) children engage in outside the confines of a physical structure or building. Evidently, how children play outdoors is different from their play inside. It tends to be more physically active, children report feeling more freedom while playing outside, and the outdoor environment has the potential of exposing them to natural elements and open air. As a result, the kind of benefits that children experience from these can be different from when they play indoors.
Children need time to engage in high quality, unstructured outdoor play in natural environments. This largely owes to the fact that natural environments are ideal to helping children learn to be more connected with nature and develop a better environmental awareness. Furthermore, outdoor play in natural settings is associated with increased physical activity in young children, which in turn
- boosts their physical health;
- improves their mental well-being;
- improves their attention behaviours, self-regulation, and working memory; and
- improves their executive functioning.
Despite reoccurring evidence from research which shows that unstructured play that takes place outdoors is vital to children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development, in recent decades, children have been playing outside less and less. Compared to the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, children today are spending approximately fifty percent less time engaged in outdoor play. Parents/Caregiver concerns around children’s safety may be one of the biggest barriers to outdoor play—a perception that children lack competency to engage with the world alone and are in danger when outside.
The general trend is a decrease in children’s opportunities for risk-taking in play. Yet play appears to be an ideal context to develop the ability to handle risk; children who engage in outdoor risky play learn to assess risk in a more accurate way. Some research suggests that this reduction in opportunities for unstructured outdoor play may already be responsible for declines in creative thinking, reduced ability to get along with others and increased mental disorders. Other factors include the growing presence of screen time in children’s lives, as well as hurried, overscheduled and academically focused lifestyles.
In a recent study by Brussoni (2019), it was found that when children play outdoors, they are more physically active than when they play indoors. Beyond the well-known health benefits of physical activity, the research also found that outdoor play and access to green space is associated with higher vitamin D levels, improved mental well-being, better attention behaviours, better self-regulation, and improved spatial memory.
Additionally, evidence suggests that repeated exposure to high-quality, unstructured outdoor play opportunities has a positive impact on social and cognitive development, including executive functions. This refers to thinking processes such as inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility. These outdoor play experiences in the early years are further linked to later academic performance. Moreover, contact with a variety of living organisms (plants, animals, insects, bacteria) helps to boost the immune system and may reduce the development of allergies.
What will it hurt to allow children the liberty to engage in outdoor play activities, given that its benefits far outweigh the downside of allowing children play outside. Be the difference and join in the fun, even as you allow the children in your care play outdoors.