5 Developmental Benefits of Outdoor Play
A few of us will remember growing up in the time before there were screens everywhere. We had to keep ourselves occupied with a different kind of play than what seems to be the norm today. Often our parents didn’t know where in the neighborhood we were. We swam in rivers and climbed trees to get into tree houses where it was “girls only” or “no boys allowed”.
“Go play outside” is not most mothers’ “go-to” phrase anymore for when children get a little crazy in the house. When they are “bored” or cranky these days, the television gets turned on, or a phone or tablet get pushed into their hands. And children understand this to be the “normal” from such a young age, that they actually, sadly prefer it.
And granted, times have changed. More people live in apartment buildings in the city next to busy roads. There are no parks close by and no back yard to open the door to. Or just simply, in many places, a big part of the year, playing outside is not much of an option due to extreme temperatures. There are many more dangers and less and less space for children to do things other than sitting on the couch and stare at a screen. It is safe, and it is convenient.
And children are suffering because of this lack of outdoor play and activities. There are alarming increases in the deterioration of cardiovascular, metabolic and musculoskeletal health of children.
There is also a great impact on mental health. Unrelieved stress, depression and poor self-image are on the rise as those hormones that stimulates fear responses, motivation and mood, adrenaline and cortisol, is not released sufficiently. It brings on sleep disorders, memory impairment and depression. Academic performance suffers because of cognitive decline.
And sadly, it is very likely that these learned patterns will follow them into adulthood.
There is great panic about this crisis that is known as: "Nature deficit disorder". And it is so extreme that it is now estimated that the average American child spends around 4 to 7 minutes per day outside, taking part in unstructured play. That is the equivalent amount of time to brushing your teeth twice a day!
The recommended time for children to have unstructured playtime outdoors is between 30 minutes to 1 hour each day. This time can be broken up into 10 minutes chunks of time.
There is the discussion around, should this time be outside or can it be in an “outdoor environment”. And of course, being outdoors is preferable and encouraged as it has a multitude of benefits. However, should being outdoors not be an option, “outdoor environment” activities will still heavily outweigh sitting on the couch.
Being and playing outdoors has huge developmental benefits for children. It is a form of exercise that promotes well-being and physical development.
Let’s look at 5 of the developmental benefits of outdoor play.
- Reduces Stress
We know that physical activity produces endorphins. It is the chemical in the brain that acts as a natural painkiller and is known as the “feel good” hormone. It basically produces the same effect in the body as what morphine would, leaving us on a natural “high”.
It also reduced those immune system chemicals that can make us feel low, or depressed.Play and exercise raises body temperature. This brings about even more of the calming or "feel good" effect, as body temperature is related to hormone secretion. So, even more endorphins.
Everyone has experienced the effects of a brisk walk, going for a run or to the gym, and you just feel “better”. Even bouncing on a rebounder a few times will do it. When your body feels better, your mind feels better. Thus reducing stress levels.
This reduction in stress has the added benefit of better sleep. And especially in children, sleep is vital for the restoration of the body as well as for normal growth.
Lack of sleep and lack of quality sleep has long been a topic of discussion, and it is no different for children. It supports vital growth and development and the more, and better quality of sleep they get, the better they can function on all levels.
- Increases Attention Span
Play is a very important part of any child’s learning process. It helps with the development of motor skills and teaches them how to use their bodies. When they climb a ladder to the top of the play frame, hand-eye coordination and concentration are being developed along with learning how to balance. The child is also learning to focus on the task at hand in order not to fall.
Kicking a ball with friends, in addition to the physical skill it develops, helps the little on pay attention to space, moving objects and speed, making decisions as he goes. He has to pay close attention to where his friends are in relation to the ball and learn to make decisions quickly.
The "unstructured play" is the focus here. As adults are always trying to keep children safe and happy, we often interfere with their ability to focus on something for long enough to sort out a problem on their own. At the first sign of boredom, we suggest a game or pass them a toy, thus continually interrupting their attention and focus. And they learn that they don’t have to pay attention to anything for long before someone offers a solution or alternative to them.
Our modern lifestyles come with so many distractions. Children have computers, video games, television and a host of extra activities we sign them up for. And although none of those things in itself is negative, the combination of all of it can be very overwhelming for a child. It causes distraction and sensory overload. Allowing them to do their own thing in an outdoor setting where they can apply their focus and attention to the things that catch their eye naturally, counters this overload.
- Encourages Creative Thinking
When children are constantly “being entertained” there is no reason for them to think up ways to entertain themselves. When they are bored, we tell them what to do. The don’t need to actively think when they watch TV or play video games - it’s done for them. Internet and computers have made it so that there is always something to do, but again they are just fed information.
They don’t have come up with rules for a made up game. They don't even have to come up with games anymore. It's all planned out for them already. Learning to think creatively and using imagination is such a huge part of development for a child and what better way than to develop these skills than in nature?
Being in nature helps them to think more freely, design their own activities and see and approach the world in inventive ways. You have to be inventive to catch a bug, and you have to be fast. You have to pick up a rock if it runs in under it, and then when there are a few more of the same kind of bug under that rock, you can make a story about the bug and his family…
What would be the best way get over a big rock in the road on a hiking trip? What lives in the water in the lake? How far can he trough the ball for the dog to fetch it? And can he outrun the dog?
This is the creative thinking that will happen naturally when we allow them the time and space to do so.Growing a garden and getting children to help you with the activities is a great way to teach them about how living creatures and plants coexists and interacts, why plants need food and water and how it becomes food for us. It teaches them responsibility and commitment as well, because the plant will not grow and provide you with food if you don’t look after it.
All their sense are engaged when they enter this world. New sounds when they hear a bird sing, the smell of a campfire and rain and how rough the bark of a tree is compared to the delicateness of a flower’s petals. Creativity is in all play, but outdoors, in nature, there is a whole new world to discover, learn about and dream up. A sense of wonder.
- Improves Physical Health
As mentioned before, all children need physical exercise and to outdoor play in fresh air and sunshine, as it’s beneficial for healthy growth and development.
Taking part in different activities like running, jumping, riding a bike or kicking a ball all requires muscles to work. And different muscle groups to work at different times. They use their whole body during play, and it creates interesting and challenges and experiences for them.
When they ride a bike or are on skates, they work on balance and coordination, and it teaches them self-confidence when they master the activity.
One example of how play engage all muscle group and senses is when a child is on a swing. They use all their muscle to hold on, balance and have to use coordination according to the back and forth motion. They experience cause and effect and spatial learning. They also, literally, see the outside world from different angles.
Another advantage to physical health is breathing in clean, fresh air. Inside, even though we clean all time, there is dust and other contaminants trapped in the very recycled air we breathe. Playing outdoors opens lungs up and children get to breathe in better quality air for a part of the day.
Considering that many people are severely vitamin D deficient and the long list of negative effects on the body, playing outdoors in the sunshine becomes even more crucial. Vitamin D has many health benefits which include bone health, preventing diabetes and heart disease over the long term in children.
Of course, there are supplements that can be taken, but the best will always be the natural version, running around in sunlight. Always make sure that little ones wear sufficient sunscreen, though.
- Builds Self and Social Confidence
Through play outdoors in nature or the playground, children learn valuable social skills and how to interact with others. They learn to help each other, by maybe extending a hand when a friend can’t jump a puddle or balance on a rock without stepping into a stream and getting his shoes wet.
They learn to share and take turns doing activities, and they have to do this on their terms as there are less pre-set rules in this type of play. It doesn’t come with a handbook of rules for them when they skip rocks on a lake. You wait your turn. Otherwise, you can’t see your own rock skip and neither you nor your friend can see how far it went.
It allows them to pick and make their own friends. During a camping holiday, your friends from school are not there and you need someone to play with. It’s up to you to walk up to other children and make friends. Valuable social interactions outside of what they know.
Children learn consequences of “not playing nice”. Not always fun, but very important. You have to take others into consideration when you all want to play on the same equipment or skate down the same ramp. Learn to share and be respectful, because a friend might get hurt if you push or jump in front of them.
We all love our children so dearly and want the absolute best for them. We want to give the all the gifts in the world. Let nature and fresh air be high on the top of that list.