The Value of Outdoor Play

Childhood should be a time of exploration and discovery. Children are full of wonder and are excited to take in everything around them. They integrate and share what they know about the world through play. However, for many childhood has become a time of indoor screen time or sitting in classroom desks. They have little time left to get outside and engage in play. I’m here to advocate for play and share the value of outdoor play for your students no matter what age they are. 

There are so many benefits to getting your students outside just to play. Giving your students a longer chunk of time to be outside and in a natural space will not only reap many physical benefits, but also will have social, emotional, and mental health benefits for your students. Go beyond just providing recess time, but provide your students with the gift of getting outside and playing. 

Understanding the Value of Outdoor Play​

1. Outdoor Play Develops Physical Skills​

There are so many physical benefits of spending time outdoors. Playing outside allows kids to develop physical skills without boring drills, gym lessons, or exercises. These skills just come naturally to kids as they play and explore outdoors. Uneven surfaces, things to climb on, trees to crawl under, are just a few of the ways that children’s physical skills are naturally challenged and developed.

Some of the skills that kids develop while playing outside are:

  • balance: running on uneven surfaces, climbing on rocks, and balancing on stumps helps kids to work on their balance
  • core strength: climbing, crawling under trees, and even just sitting on the ground all develop core muscle skills
  • coordination: climbing, moving uphill, crawling, and running on uneven surfaces all help students to develop their coordination
  • fine motor skills: picking up small, delicate items or gathering sticks and rocks all help to develop the pinching grasp and muscle dexterity required to write
  • stamina: in the outdoors things are more spread out. Kids naturally build up their stamina when they are outside

2. Outdoor Play Provides (Just Right) Sensory Stimulation​

The textures, smells and sounds of the outdoors are soothing to some and invigorating for others. Nature seems to know just what each kids needs and provides the right sensory stimulation. Nature also allows children to seek out the stimulation that they intuitively know their body needs. For example, bark, moss, wood, rocks all provide varied physical stimulation. They are also very grounding for the students who require a bit more of a calming influence. Nature smells also provide natural aromatherapy for kids. It is amazing how nature just seems to look after us. 

After outdoor play, I find that most of my students are better regulated and better able to learn. My students come inside and are more focused and better self-regulated than if we were to go to the gym. Nature seems to provide a calming influence that we can’t achieve indoors. 

a boy playing in the snow

3. Outdoor Play Develops Imagination and Stimulates Creativity​

You don’t need to spend a ton of money on toys for your students to enjoy nature play or outdoor play. In fact, if you like, you can make do with just what nature provides for you. Nature provides so many beautiful and interesting play materials. Pine cones, sticks, hollows under a tree…all can be whatever a child wants them to be. 

Contrast this to many of our indoor play toys which have a single function or purpose. Nature’s materials invite students to use them in the way that best suits their play. Pine cones might become a currency or maybe they are ingredients of a cake. They might even be both. Students need to be able to share their ideas about what the materials are. They also need to be flexible in their thinking about the materials purpose as others bring their ideas to the play. 

Additionally, the spaces that nature provides require students to use their imagination to determine their meaning and intention. A space beneath a tree could become a house, an animal den, or even the lair of an evil villain. There are so many ways that kids are able to use their imaginations and come up with creative ways to use what nature has provided for them.

4. Kids Develop “Play Stamina” and Resilience During Outdoor Play​

When kids are playing outdoors, they tend to engage in continuous play for longer periods of time. When playing indoors, there are often many distractions such as other toys, other kids, or even the school bell. However, when outdoors kids are able to engage in play and keep playing. They are naturally able to extend their play due to the increased space and affordances of the materials provided by nature. 

Additionally, conditions are rarely perfect when playing outside. During outdoor play, children develop resilience as they learn to deal with challenging conditions. 

5. Outdoor Play Helps Kids Understand Themselves Better​

The value of outdoor play for the social and emotional growth of our students is tremendous. During outdoor play, kids begin to understand their own capabilities and limits better. While playing outdoors, kids are able to take risks or try more difficult tasks. Although many adults seem to be adverse to risky play, taking risks during play is a natural part of child development. Taking risks allows students to evaluate their own tolerance for an activity. It also allows them to set their own boundaries as to what they are willing to do and unwilling to do. For the students that seem to have no fear, allowing them opportunities to take “safe risks” during their play provides them with the right amount of stimulation but also allows them to understand the rules and boundaries of others. 

As children accomplish challenging and risky tasks, they begin to build confidence and understand their own capabilities. They start to see themselves as capable, independent, and autonomous individuals. 

a group of children playing in the forest

6. Kids Build Social Skills Through Outdoor Play​

Kids seem to naturally just come together during outdoor play. From my own observations, I have found that kids who normally have trouble engaging in group play when indoors, have no trouble joining new groups outside. Some of the social skills that kids work on are:

  • teamwork: accomplishing big tasks, like moving a giant snowball, means that kids need to work together
  • communication: kids spend more time describing what they are seeing and doing when they are outside. There is also more dialogue during imaginative play.
  • listening to each other: increased communication means that kids also must listen to each other more.
  •  problem-solving skills: playing in nature means that kids will naturally encounter obstacles (either real or imagined) to their play. They need to work together figure out how to overcome these obstacles.
  • turn taking: turn taking seems to come more naturally in the outdoors
  • following rules: in order to be safe, kids know they need to follow the rules outdoors. As kids negotiate the rules of their own games/play scenarios, they also learn to understand and follow each other’s rules and requests. 

7. Kids Develop a Relationship to Nature Through Outdoor Play​

As kids play outside and spend time in nature, they begin to understand their place in nature. They begin to see how nature provides gifts, materials, and a fun place to play. Nature becomes something that they love and value. Kids also begin to see how humans affect nature. They can see how our presence can harm nature or be helpful to her. Through outdoor play children learn to be kind to each other, as well as to the plants and animals in their play space. 

It is this relationship with nature that leads people to want to care for nature. Many environmentalists speak about cherished outdoor memories and how these memories lead to their own desire to care for the Earth. By allowing time for outdoor play, we can create bonds with nature that last a lifetime. 

a group of children playing in the leaver in the fall

Now It’s Time To Experience the Many Benefits of Outdoor Play​

No matter how you choose to do it, taking time to let your kids get outside and play will have so many benefits. As your kids have time to explore and get to know nature, you will start to see the value of outdoor play and how it has been benefitting both you and your students. Kids need to play, no matter what age they are. They also need to be able to get outside each day. So why not combine the two!

There are many ways that you can get your students outside to play. Your outdoor playtime doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to have some thought put into safety and classroom management. If you aren’t ready for unstructured outdoor play yet, there are many resources out there to help you get started with outdoor learning. 

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