Take Them Outside: The Importance of Outdoor Play
For busy, stressed adults, watching kids play at the park might inspire a little twinge of envy. Oh, to be a carefree kid again! But it’s important to remember that, for kids, outdoor play isn’t just about having fun (although that’s certainly an important element). Outdoor play is a key part of healthy physical, social and emotional development.
Stretch, Run and Grow
Playing outdoors allows kids to use their bodies in ways they can’t do while sitting behind a desk. Running, climbing, kicking and throwing balls, jumping and crawling help kids develop their gross and fine motor skills, build muscle, strengthen their bones and improve their cardiovascular endurance. Soaking up sunshine also helps kids boost their vitamin D intake, which is crucial for bone building.
Outdoor play is also a key element in the fight against childhood obesity. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends adolescents get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity each day–but one 2011 study found that only 6.4 percent of 7-year-olds and 5.7 percent of 9-year-olds were getting the recommended 60 minutes per day. Few kids are getting the exercise they need for optimal health, and more outdoor play can help.
It may be hard to believe, but playing a game of tag can actually help kids become better students. Free play–that is, play that’s not directed by adults, in which kids make their own rules–can change the wiring in the brain. Those wiring changes optimize the brain’s executive control center, which is responsible for things like making decisions, researcher Sergio Pellis told NPR.
Having lots of outdoor playtime may even help kids do better in school. Research shows that having recess makes kids more attentive in class, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Taking play breaks from schoolwork helps kids be more productive overall, it seems. So while it might seem counterintuitive, taking time to run around outdoors can actually help kids get their homework done.
And it’s important not to underestimate the amount of learning that kids can do outdoors. Investigating plants and insects, noticing the way gravity works, observing the way the sun and clouds move–the great outdoors makes a great classroom.
Developing Social Skills
Many important life lessons are learned on the monkey bars. Playing outdoors is useful in helping kids develop social skills because there’s typically more freedom and less structure in outdoor play spaces than in the classroom and the home. With lots of open space and a few props, kids can use their imaginations to build complex pretend worlds or invent new games. They have to figure out how to settle disagreements and communicate their ideas.
And while adults should always closely supervise outdoor play, more physical space means kids have more space and independence while they play together. Teachers and parents may guide and facilitate their interactions in the classroom or home, but outdoors, kids get more opportunities to meet, disagree and bond with other kids without an adult standing next to them.
Although their lives may seem carefree to adults, modern kids cope with a lot of stress. Academic pressure, social media and bullying affect even elementary students. Kids don’t have the life experience and coping skills to handle stress effectively, so it can build up to the point of causing physical harm.
Outdoor play can help with stress in two key ways. First, gross motor play–which involves large body movements like running and jumping–can reduce what’s called “allostatic load,” or the general physical wear and tear that stress causes. Second, research suggests that spending time in nature can reduce stress and improve mental health.
And, of course, it’s fun!