Outdoor play provides kids with a variety of experiences that improve their creativity and focus. It also teaches them to deal with the unknown and push through challenges, skills that support their mental health later in life.
Playing outdoors also exposes children to sunlight, which is essential for their physical development and mood. Read on to learn more about the benefits of outdoor play for kids at every age and stage.
1. Boosts Cognitive Development
Kids learn through play, and outdoor play gives them opportunities to build cognitive skills that can help them at school. Research has shown that unstructured outdoor play promotes problem-solving, planning, decision making and imagination. These are skills that can transfer to academics, especially for children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes.
When kids spend time outdoors, they also discover their relationship with the natural world. They can learn about flora and fauna and explore their surroundings, which can help them develop empathy and compassion for the environment and others. This can inspire them to become environmentalists as adults, preserving and protecting natural areas for future generations.
While researchers are still trying to figure out why, it appears that BDNF levels increase during outdoor play and nature experiences. BDNF is a protein that helps brain cells grow, survive and form new connections. This is important for all aspects of cognitive development, including learning and memory.
When kids play outside, they’re more likely to concentrate in other activities, like schoolwork. This can help them stay focused during class and make it easier for teachers to cover more academic material. For example, playing with friends on the monkey bars or engaging in a game of pretend can require intense concentration. These types of activities can help kids practice focusing on one task for long periods of time, which will be useful later in life when they need to study or work.
2. Boosts Self-Esteem
Aside from boosting cognitive development, outdoor play can also help kids develop self-esteem. When children get to interact with their peers during play, they build a sense of independence and self-confidence that will carry into adulthood. This is because they are exploring their surroundings without fear of judgement, and are learning how to interact with others in a healthy way.
It is also been found that outdoor play allows kids to relieve stress and improve their moods. This is because being in nature stimulates the brain, releasing hormones that make us happier and calmer. Furthermore, playing outside gives kids the opportunity to decompress from schoolwork and other stressful activities.
Kids who don’t spend much time outdoors tend to be more anxious and less confident than those who do. While it’s true that many activities that happen indoors can be beneficial, it’s important to have plenty of opportunities for outdoor, unstructured play. It is during this type of play that kids become more independent, creative and resilient. Moreover, it is during this kind of play that the prefrontal cortex becomes more mature, which is essential for critical thinking and problem-solving. It is also during this type of play that kids can burn off excess energy, which makes it easier for them to focus in class. It is also during this time that they can get the vitamin D they need for good health.
3. Boosts Social Skills
Playing outside is a great opportunity for kids to interact with friends and practice teamwork. When they work together to solve a problem on the playground equipment or in the woods, for instance, it helps them develop communication and collaboration skills. It also provides them with a space to test their boundaries and learn how to deal with risks. Yes, they may get a few bumps and bruises – but these small risks can help them build confidence and learn how to avoid future risky behaviors.
It’s also a chance for kids to discover their relationship with the natural world. Playing tag or constructing a sand castle requires attention span and persistence, which helps them build their ability to focus for longer periods of time. This can translate into better performance in school.
Outdoor play can teach children about how their actions affect the environment and inspire them to take care of it in return. This is particularly important because it’s easy for kids to forget about the impact of their daily activities, especially when they spend most of their time indoors. In addition, a recent study found that kids who grow up near green spaces like parks or forests are more likely to be environmentally responsible adults. So, next time your child wants to spend all day in front of a screen, try convincing them to go outside instead.
4. Boosts Physical Activity
Outdoor play allows children to move around more freely than indoors and can offer a greater range of physical experiences, such as walking on uneven ground, running up a slope or moving large objects. For kids with ADHD or other executive function challenges, the opportunity to use their bodies in a natural setting can help them focus better during school or other activities.
Research suggests that children who spend more time playing outdoors also get more physical exercise than those who play inside. One study showed that for every hour of outdoor play, kids got 10 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (Larouche et al 2017). Playing outside in all weather is important to help children learn how the elements affect their movements and environment. They need to know that a slide feels smooth, wind makes the leaves blow and the sun is bright.
Another benefit of outdoor play is that it can increase a child’s exposure to Vitamin D. This essential nutrient is not readily available in food and can only be absorbed through exposure to sunlight. Children who spend more time in nature may be more likely to have higher vitamin D levels and a stronger immune system than their peers.
Today, too many kids do not have enough time to play outside. This is a shame because the brain changes that occur during open and unstructured play are vital for children’s development. If you are concerned that your child does not have enough outdoor play, talk to your pediatrician and make a plan for getting more outdoor time.