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Why Outdoor Play is So Essential

In a world increasingly made smaller by screens and media devices, the need for outdoor play is becoming more and more important for young children. Science shows that free time outdoors to explore and play not only promotes young children’s physical, social and emotional well-being, but it can also help support their ability to thrive and learn. Children need free time outdoors to become well-rounded, smart individuals.

Developmental benefits to outdoor play for children?

Spending time outdoors is critical to early childhood education because it provides many developmental benefits, ranging from physical health to emotional well-being. It also decreases screen time for children, which is important in fighting off diseases caused by inactivity and expending pent-up energy.

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise is critical for both large and fine motor skills. Large motor skills develop quickly in young children. These skills are responsible for the development of large muscle movements that aid in things like running, jumping and throwing. Small motor skills are those movements that occur in the wrists, hands, fingers, feet and toes. They involve smaller actions than the large motor skills, such as writing carefully and picking up objects using the thumb and finger. They even help with blinking!

Outdoor play helps develop these two critical skills, which together aid in children’s development of coordination. You can already see the importance of outdoor play in early childhood education, but there’s more.

Learning About the Outside World

Playing outdoors helps children learn about our world in a fun way. Children are naturally curious. Why does a caterpillar move the way it does? What happens if I pick this dandelion and blow on it? How do Ospreys build their nests? If I throw this ball harder, will I make a basket? What happens when I eat my popsicle on a warm day?

Children are curious about the world around them. While they can certainly learn about the world in other ways, discovering things through observation and playing outdoors can be more effective. And fun! The outdoor school can teach children about animals, plants, gardening, science, math, vocabulary, the seasons, weather, time– just to name a few. And since they are learning through discovery, that information is more personally meaningful to them which means they will more likely retain it.

Learning About Oneself in the Outdoors

When it comes to children and outdoor play, they must be able to push their limits in order to learn about their emotional and physical capabilities. How high can I climb that tree? How far can I jump on one leg? Can I move faster on my scooter if I squat down? What happens when I toss a rock into the lake? Can I run up that entire hill?

An important part of human development is understanding how we fit into the natural world. We discover this by taking part in the world and learning as we experience and interact with nature. Encouraging children and outdoor play helps achieve this.

Overall Health

Being outdoors is healthy in more ways than one. First, playing helps children increase their cardiovascular endurance by increasing the heart rate. Obesity in America is growing, and starting at an earlier age than ever before. One reason for this is an increase in a sedentary lifestyle. That includes staying indoors more and spending more time on screens. Getting children to move their bodies outside increases their heart rate and can help prevent childhood obesity.

Another physical health benefit of spending more time outdoors is that children will get sick less often. Studies show that illnesses spread more quickly when people are indoors. Just ask anyone that works with young children how quickly viruses and bacteria can spread in these environments!

One way to combat the spread of disease is by taking advantage of outdoor spaces. Being out in the fresh air allows infectious germs to dissipate, preventing the spread of illness. It also increases children’s exercise, keeping them physically healthier and more able to fight off illness if they do get sick.

Encouraging a Variety of Play

Playgrounds, parks, and other outdoor spaces can provide an area where children and outdoor play can flourish. Playgrounds allow children to make a mess, shout out loud, run, whistle, jump and hide while exploring the natural environment. Hiking and parks allow children to interact with nature in a variety of ways that being indoors does not. They can see animals, insects, natural waterways, or climb trees and roll around on the grass.  These types of play are not possible indoors.

The wider variety of physical activities again shows the importance of outdoor play in early childhood education.

Constructive Play

Constructive play occurs when children manipulate the environment around them to create things. This can include experimenting with materials such as sand, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk. Another fun activity is water play through the use of a water table or a sprinkler and grass. Research shows that children love constructive play, and it is the most popular among preschoolers, most likely because they can control the way in which they play. Anyone up for some mud pie?

Executive Function

Executive function is a term for the skills that help us organize, plan, troubleshoot, negotiate, prioritize and multitask. These skills are critical for our success in life. Executive function even includes creativity and using our imagination to solve problems and entertain ourselves.  In order to learn and practice these skills, children need open-ended, unstructured time to play. Spending time alone and with other children playing games, especially ones that they make up themselves, gives them time to practice figuring things out and entertaining themselves. Promoting children and outdoor play provides the opportunity to practice these important life skills.

Taking Risks

As parents, we want to do everything to keep our children safe. But kids need to take risks. Taking risks allows children to test their own limits to build confidence. Having confidence and building bravery will help children as they grow and face life’s inevitable risks.

Playing outdoors provides opportunities for children to take risks. Yes, children may fall down and break an arm, or try to talk to someone and be rejected. They learn valuable lessons from each failure which helps them grow to be well-rounded adults. Let them climb that tree or race around on that scooter!

Socialization

The importance of outdoor play in early childhood education is seen with socialization. Learning to play and work well with others are important life skills for children to learn. When children play outside with others, they practice making friends, sharing, how to treat others, and the value of cooperation. While sports activities and school can help teach these important values, they cannot provide children with everything they need to know. Unstructured time outside allows children to socialize freely.

Why is it important to decrease screen time?

Most experts agree that reducing screen time is healthy, and that could not be more important for young children. Read on for the benefits of reducing screen time.

Overall Health

Reducing the time spent in front of a digital device lowers diseases like obesity, diabetes, and sleep problems. Obesity, diabetes, and sleep issues have, in recent years, become an issue in childhood. What used to be an adult problem, is now happening at a younger age.

One great way to help keep these health problems at bay is to get outside. Getting children outdoors to run around and use their bodies can help their cardiovascular health, which is key to combating obesity and diabetes. Expending extra energy (see the Surplus-Energy Theory section next), will help young children fall and stay asleep at night. What parent wouldn’t appreciate an easier bedtime routine?

The Surplus-Energy Theory

The surplus-energy theory says that play allows people to unleash pent-up energy that has built up over time. In the school setting, teachers and administrators believe that after spending a lot of time inside the classroom, students need to let off steam. That goes for younger children as well. If children spend too much time indoors, their energy builds up over time without any real way to release it.

When children spend their inside time on a screen, it can lead to even more inactivity than simply being indoors. Instead of using creativity and some limited energy to make forts or play with blocks, sitting on a screen is sedentary and expends little energy.

That means it is even more important for children to release their built-up energy outside! Outside play enables children to “recharge their batteries,” and let loose to get their “wiggles out.”

Children and Outdoor Play

As we’ve seen, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of outdoor play in early childhood education. Encouraging children and outdoor play eventually lead to healthy, well-rounded adults. And that’s what we all want for our children, isn’t it?

If it wasn’t for outdoor play, my son and I would’ve never come up with the Elliot’s Adventures Series. Our time spent outdoors helped his imagination to flourish, and gave me the energy to write children’s books to inspire others. It is our hope that our readers get to experience the same fun, exciting, and educational adventures as Elliot does while he explores the outdoors.

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