Kids were not meant to sit inside all day. A growing body of research shows that outdoor free play is essential for proper physical, emotional, and sensory development.
It seems so simple. I would venture to say that children have been playing outside since the dawn of humanity itself. However, now we fill our days with school and other commitments that often kids don’t have time for outdoor play. Add to that the appeal of T.V. and video games and many kids simply don’t play outside that much anymore. Do kids really need to play outside?
Occupational therapist and author Angela Hanscom would answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!” She outlines the multifaceted benefits of outdoor play in her book, Barefoot and Balanced: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. Hanscom further explains her views on her occupational therapy blog, Barefoot and Balanced. She educates and also advocates for better recess strategies in schools. In her post, The Case for Recess — Why We Need to Bring Back Free Play, she states, “In fact, some of the most important skills–such as learning how to negotiate, trade, create, problem solve, forgive, ask forgiveness, have empathy for others, and more–are acquired through authentic play experiences outdoors. Sensory and motor skills are also refined and strengthened when children play outdoors, laying a strong foundation for attention and other school readiness abilities.”
Fellow occupational therapist Pam Braley supports Hanscom’s views. She expounds on the topic of sensory skills as she discusses vestibular system development. The body maintains balance through the vestibular system. It is made up of the inner ear and certain parts of the brain. An underdeveloped vestibular system has been implicated in the rise of sensory processing disorders. She writes “Most children develop a strong vestibular sense simply through engaging in everyday play activities that allow for exploration and movement.” The two therapists agree: swinging, spinning, rolling, and sliding are great ways to develop a child’s vestibular system.
Pediatricians and others have been encouraging more outdoor play for kids in response to the growing rate of childhood obesity. As kids spend less time engaging in active play and more time doing homework or playing video games, their physical fitness level declines. In addition to rising body weight, experts are seeing a decrease in core and upper body strength that kids acquire from outdoor play, namely climbing trees or monkey bars.
The physical benefits of outdoor free play go beyond merely maintaining a healthy weight. Free play has shown to reduce the number of injuries in child athletes. Physical therapists are helping educate about the research: “The study, presented at a national conference for the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that children who play more hours than their age of one particular sport face a higher injury risk. ‘In fact, athletes who spend more than twice as much time in organized sports than in free play, whatever their age or sport, are more likely to be injured and have serious overuse injuries,’ a news release from the American Academy of Pediatrics states.”
Social and Emotional Development
Free time to play outdoors also helps with social and emotional development. As children play outdoors with other children, they practice many valuable skills. They learn to share their ideas, to compromise, and to resolve conflicts. Making up their own games helps develop imagination and creativity. Taking healthy risks (such as climbing a rock wall or swinging high on a swing) builds confidence.
Parks, Playgrounds, and Camp
In order to provide the benefits of outdoor free play, look for playgrounds that present a challenge. Good playgrounds should have equipment that encourages them to take healthy risks, challenge their strength and balance, and move their bodies in a variety of ways. In addition to playgrounds, visit state parks or wilderness areas. There you can explore creeks or streams, go on hikes, and climb rocks or trees.
For older children, consider summer camp opportunities. Camp is a fun way to reap the benefits of outdoor play for kids who have outgrown the days of visiting playgrounds. Camp is a great place for kids to build new friendships, develop leadership skills, and challenge themselves physically and emotionally.
It may seem that outdoor play is all just fun and games, but play is the work of childhood. As kids are spending time playing outdoors, they are developing their minds and their bodies. They will be more able to pay attention and learn, get along with others, and stay healthy on and off the field if they are given ample time to simply play outside.