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Benefits of Outdoor Play

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

I went to the park with my 2 year old today. We were the only ones there; it was the same last week and the week before. We go quite often, other than the occasional dog walker passing through, we rarely see other children.

It’s a big park that has had local funding to do up, all new play equipment, set in a pretty big field surround by trees near a busy town.

There’s a train line running near it and you often see trains passing which my toddler loves, there are also quite often rabbits and squirrels running about.

Having said all that, it was busier in the spring and summer, but come autumn and winter, I do wonder where all the children have gone?

Before we had a child you would often find me walking our dog in all weathers, being from Wales it was mostly in the rain!

There is something so soothing about being outside, even in the rain. Now I have a child I am no different, if I don’t get outside at least once a day I feel claustrophobic. I think it’s no different for children.

I’m sure you’ve had one of those days where your child(ren) are driving you up the wall and taking them outside gives you all the ability to let out some tension.

We are currently living in a time where I think many of us are becoming more and more detached from the natural world. Most of us tend to stay indoors at home and at work, our green spaces are rapidly declining in number and we spend hours in front of screens.

Stress, anxiety and depression are on the rise resulting in employers beginning to invest in outdoor time/ yoga classes for mental wellbeing all to “reconnect” with nature.

There are numerous benefits to just being outside, for all people, young or old. I’m not sure if it is the mix of being in a society of worry about strangers, or just the technological age of not having to go out for much, most things can be delivered straight to your door without much hassle.

Whatever the reasons for it, I encourage you to just try and spend at least an hour outside a day, see if it makes a difference to you, your family, your children.

Lets help our children to explore the natural world, and raise them with the skills to be able to take care of our home.

There are many benefits to playing outside;

Physical Development and Health - a reduced risk of being nearsighted this means better distance vision than those who are always indoors.

Vitamin D exposure which plays an important role in many physical processes such as bone development and the immune system - Sun exposure helps you to fall asleep quicker…!

Reduced levels of stress - Higher fitness levels - Enhanced development of perceptual abilities, being outdoors is a feast for the senses; sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.

Proprioception- the ability to sense your own bodies movement. - Development of sensori- motor skills, to run fast, jump, climb, throw -

Opportunity to explore physical forces and concepts for example, going down a slide, spinning on a roundabout, rolling down hills, watching birds fly, or leaves falling from trees, jumping in puddles etc.

Cognitive and Social/emotional development - Children with ADHD have also been found to exhibit fewer symptoms when spending lots of time outside.

The theory being that those who play outdoors more regularly are likely to stay with a task longer, potentially increasing attention spans.

Helps to build social skills, less intimidating being out in an open green space, less crowded and noisy, children are often overwhelmed in situations that (some) adults may not be.

I am sure many of us have experienced our children being more inclined to play with other children outside at the park rather than inside in for example a busy toddler group- this is usually where mine hides in the room with the prams

- Encourages creativity, there are less toys and constraints than at home, they are often stimulated by natural objects around them and begin to exert their imagination.

- Encourages risk taking – most outdoor play equipment has more risk than indoor toys, this can be helpful for children to push their boundaries and learn how to assess risk.

One of the most important benefits of outdoor play I believe is that it fosters an appreciation for the natural world.

The future of our planet belongs in the hands of our children. We need to be doing everything in our power to raise our children with not just an appreciation for our home, but an understanding of how the world works so that they can become the caretakers of the Earth in years to come.

Importance of playing with natural objects Something I touched on above was about sensory play, there are many objects found in nature which plastic representations are unable to replicate.

In order to aid learning of the natural world we need to provide opportunities for this to happen. Many natural objects and resources tend to be open ended when it comes to play, Unlike for example a lot of plastic toys which tend to do one or two things for example if it plays music when you press a button or lights up.

Children tend to lose interest in these types of toys as they are quite limited to what they are, rather than what they can become.

For example, mud. Mud can be so many different things, it can be runny, it can be thick, it can be used to make mud pies, it can be mixed with water. Children can learn about texture about mixing, containment, how it feels, smells, the sound it makes when it lands into a bucket.

They can learn simple maths by counting how many cups of mud goes into a mix but also all the language surrounding it. This goes for many natural resources, water, wood, twigs, sticks, leaves.

The possibilities are endless and also, they don’t take up all the room in the house! (and children are unlikely to get bored easily by them).

My two year old currently loves pouring water through funnels into various shaped pots and it is the longest she has stayed with any activity so far.

Natural objects also include food, I know that quite often messy play is not enjoyed by many parents especially if they are the ones cleaning up!

However, there are now many classes you can go to to do this if the mess bothers you, that way you only need to clean your child after!

Like the water play my little enjoys, she is also a fan of sitting in a big box with various textured food, like oats, rice, lentils, pasta etc… Pouring them into different containers, through funnels, over their skin, mixing them together and hiding things in it.

This is also another activity that can just be taken outside, minimal mess for you to tidy up too!

Natural objects include so many important opportunities to learn that most toys haven’t quite caught up to. If my little is anything to go by water seems to trump all other toys at the moment.

They are also readily available and completely FREE! They can be found in your garden, the park or at the beach.

Involve your littles in collecting the natural items too if possible, another learning opportunity for sorting, grouping and learning new words to describe what they have found.

Then its just the matter of trying to decide what to do with everything they find!

Here are some ideas;

- Play dough- home made maybe adding dried herbs or lemon zest for example

- Play matching games with shells/stones or match photos with the real object

- Writing with natural items - get your child to spell their name out for example all in twigs, or in the sand

- Draw a picture - Using different coloured items, for example with coal, dandelion heads, raspberries, etc…

- Set up “scenes” with natural materials, for example a farm yard using your own toy animals, cut grass/hay etc… - Natural jewellery

– Threading items onto twine

- Create natural prints/ rubbings by pressing leaves into dough/clay or rubbing over things with a pencil/crayon such as tree bark

The list goes on! Just a quick note to add that just ensure that all items used are safe and non toxic- natural doesn’t necessarily always mean safe to use!

So what else can outdoor play look like?

Again the list is pretty endless hopefully you can find some inspiration here;

- Home- simple, if you have one, start with the garden, pour water, spot insects, birds, perhaps you have swings/a slide/ trampoline, a football, paint, most children do not need a whole let to get going when they are outside!

Do any of the above in the garden. - Tree/ plant identifying, the Woodland Trust do these wonderful swatch guide books on identifying different animals, insects and plants, they can be found here.

- Animal farm parks, sanctuaries, ducks in a pond, most places aren’t too far away from some sort of farm park that you can visit, many also do various adoptions or events where you can visit, feed, stroke etc.. This last week we met a 3 day old baby lamb at our local one.

Showing children how to care for other animals is incredibly important, on a slightly darker note, also showing them where (some of) our food comes from is also important.

- The park, climbing frames, slides, roundabouts, swings, ball games. Maybe go to a skate or bike park. - Outdoor sports such as football, rugby, netball, tennis etc..

- Cycle/Walking trails - Chalk drawing – hopscotch - Picnics- at the beach, in the garden, forest, park…

- Beach – sandcastles, rockpooling, swimming

- Forest – climb trees, hunt for acorns and pinecones

- Nature Reserves – most have volunteer groups where you can join in with activities such as balsam bashing or tree or hedge planting days.

- Community gardens/allotments- great if you don’t have a garden or just want to be involved with the community these are a great opportunity for children to learn about gardening and growing their own food.

- Grow your own – in your garden or bring the outdoors inside, grow plants, herbs to cook with or seasonal vegetables and fruit.

- Cooking- Cook outside on a fire or a bbq, at the beach or in your garden. - Nature month by month – find out what is in “season” each month, when do the daffodils come out, when are the strawberries ready for picking? When do the plants need watering or sunshine?

The opportunities for outside play really are endless. However, I came across a quote recently which put things into perspective for me… It’s easy to say “it’s raining lets stay inside” and of course there will always be weather where it is safer to stay indoors.

I’m not saying go out in gales and thunderstorms, but sometimes you can find joy in walking in the rain, splashing in mud and not worrying about how wet and dirty you get.

It’s in these moments that we truly allow our children to experience all this world has to offer. And maybe even provide opportunities to let our inner child find some joy too!

In the present society I think that as parents we have a lot to do. We are expected to work, to raise children, to cook, to clean, to find time to relax and have “you” time. To have a social life, to have connections with family, friends, co –workers, we have scheduled after school (or homeschool) classes/events.

The list goes on, my intention is not to add another thing to the to do list but perhaps to raise this one a little higher, the effects of just being outside to mental health alone are enough to warrant doing so.

Perhaps it can tick off a few others from the list, use it for connection, for relaxation, even cook outs time we can spen outside, will do wonders for our children, for parents and for society as a whole.

So over to you….what did you do outside today?

Written by Hannah Harding, founder of Growing Oaks, Mum to one feisty toddler, a yoga teacher, with a BSc (hons) in Psychology and an interest in child development.

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