Why Is Outdoor Play So Important for Children?

When kids have the space to run, jump and roll, they’re not just having fun. They are learning about their world and building critical skills in the process. Learn how it happens.

For young kids, there’s nothing better than a sidewalk puddle. It’s a sensory wonderland just right for floating a leaf, stomping, splashing and exploring. And, because no two puddles are the same, they potentially transform a simple walk around the block into an hour-long event. Yet there are plenty of great reasons to encourage outdoor play for children, says occupational therapist Stephanie Wallace, who developed a nature play program for children birth to 3 years old as part of her doctoral capstone project at Clearbrook, an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit organization that supports adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as children (ages birth to 5) with developmental delays, through a variety of programs and services.

“Outdoor play is one of the types of play in a healthy ‘play diet’ for young children,” Wallace says. “There is so much evidence to support outdoor play as a healthy activity, and nature provides a rich environment for valuable learning for any child, but even more so for the child with a developmental delay.”

Because backyards, parks, beaches, even relatively small outdoor spaces offer room for kids to jump, roll and run around, children can get the physical activity their bodies need to grow and develop. But the ever-changing aspect of nature provides the opportunity for children to learn how to tolerate transitions and change – and even build resilience, Wallace says.

“Kids need to be able to do things that are hard to do inside, and parents don’t want their children jumping on the sofa, so nature can be that great landscape in which kids can explore and learn about the world through their senses and really satisfy their desire for big-movement play,” she explains.

Want to know more about some of the lesser-known benefits of outdoor play for children? Read on for some motivation to help your child’s brain, body and social-emotional intelligence grow through outdoor play.

For healthy growth, play is not optional

While it’s a parent’s job to make sure their child is safe, fed, nurtured and cared for, it’s a child’s job to play. And while play may seem trivial compared to the work your child will be expected to do in school — and eventually in college and career — play is how children make sense of their world, says Wallace.

“Parents are doing so much to help their children learn and grow, but this is the child’s part to help themselves grow. Plus, play is fun and brings joy to life,” Wallace says.

Recent studies indicate that parents across the globe see a decrease in the prevalence of free play, possibly due to technological advances and increased screen time for young children, Wallace says. “Parents also have reported a lack of free and accessible space and safety concerns, which limit children’s outdoor play,” she says.

Whatever the cause, kids who are not playing miss out on activities that are fundamentally beneficial for growth. “In general, society has a limited understanding of what play is. It’s not ‘just coloring’ or feeding a doll, but it’s also learning to interpret what their senses tell them, problem-solve or practice social interaction. Children need a mix because there are so many skills they learn from different types of play,” Wallace says.

The science is a little more complicated and addresses development that is often difficult to see while it’s happening. For all six categories of skill development — emotional development and regulation, social, sensory, physical, cognitive and self-care — play is the perfect teacher and nature is a great classroom.

“It’s very important for kids to have unstructured play as well as time with others in a more structured environment,” Wallace explains. “A good play environment lets the child try things out and play however they want because it encourages the child’s intrinsic motivation when they can choose to do something rather than be told to do it.” As your child grows, intrinsic motivation is part of what keeps them invested at school, too.

If you’re inclined to sit in the grass and get involved, all the better, Wallace says.

“It’s important that parents spend at least some time daily playing with their child. They learn more from you than you realize. They watch how you play and will build on this. Even infants will watch you smile and learn to smile in return. They’ll watch your mouth move and learn how voices sound and what it looks like to talk,” she says, adding that little ones learn safety and trust during play — skills you will want them to have when they hit the teenage years. “According to research, this buffers against toxic stress and builds social-emotional resilience.”

Nature play is developmentally appropriate

To illustrate the customizable aspect of outdoor play, Wallace shares a favorite game that adapts to various ages. In “Ducky’s Bucket Escape,” the goal is to help a rubber ducky get out of the pail by scooping water from the lake, backyard paddling pool or even a large bowl into the pail, eventually freeing the duck. (Don’t have a duck? A ball will work just fine.)

“Toddlers develop gross motor skills like balance and coordination by running across the sand or grass, crouching to fill a cup with water and carrying it to the bucket. Running on sand or grass is a sensory experience because it can be soft or coarse. Little ones become accustomed to the feel of water on their hands and ankles and become OK with that feeling. And the simple story of helping get ducky out of the pail is great pretend play for kids,” Wallace says. Older children can race siblings or beat the clock of a visual timer — building social skills and a rudimentary understanding of time.

The fact that these skills help children later in academic settings is key, and this type of simple outdoor play provides parents with an endlessly customizable theme. Eventually, the child will even come up with new rules for the game.

Outdoor play stimulates creativity and problem solving

Nature provides a blank slate for children to explore. “Children can look at a picture of a tree, but it’s by seeing it in person that they can recognize its height, see its leaves moving in the wind, and feel the bark. They can understand the differences between various types of trees. Being in nature teaches children how to engage with the nuances of the outdoor world,” Wallace says.

Creative play can be as close as your nearest tree. Use some tape to stick a piece of paper to the tree at the right height for your child. Give your child markers, crayons without their wrappings or even a paint roller to color over the paper, revealing the bumpy bark underneath. This simple activity engages multiple skills for the young child, Wallace says.

“Children will work on grasping the markers or crayons with the tips of their fingers or with their whole hand. They will experience the tactile (touch) sensation of the bark and use eye-hand coordination and strengthen their hands,” Wallace explains. “Around 24 months is when constructive play starts and children begin to develop an end goal and may be motivated to fill in the entire paper. They begin to want to see the end result.”

Nature play is beneficial for all children, and particularly for those experiencing a developmental delay, Wallace says. “The outdoors provides a rich environment for learning and that’s valuable for any child. Kids with developmental delays may experience cognitive difficulties or challenges to their fine motor skills,” Wallace says. “When a child is behind, plenty of outdoor play can boost them even more and gives parents the chance to provide a richer life and as much opportunity to learn and grow as they can.”

Looking for ideas for outdoor play? The internet can provide many resources, and Wallace suggests these sites for outdoor activities for children:

Clearbrook empowers adults and children with intellectual/developmental disabilities to live their fullest lives possible.

Clearbrook’s Child and Family Connections (CFC) program provides intake, assessment, evaluation and service coordination to families of children aged birth to 3 in all of the North and Northwest suburban Cook Counties.

CHILD (Clearbrook Helps Infants Learn and Develop) Therapy Services offers a family-focused, interdisciplinary approach to assisting families with young children ages birth to five with developmental delays. One family says, “This program gives the children a chance in life that they would not have otherwise.”

Learn more at clearbrook.org/children.

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