Outdoor play is one of the greatest joys of childhood, but it is more than just a way of having a good time. It is the best place for young ones to gain a sense of mastery and competency of skills – whether physical or cognitive. Not only does it allow them to expend all that boisterous energy inside, it also encourages learning and problem-solving from an early age, which eventually helps them perform better at school. In fact, unstructured outdoor play has been shown to help children focus better in a classroom setting, as it promotes creativity and helps them think differently, enhancing their readiness for learning and easing the eventual transition to school.
Perhaps one of the most obvious benefits of outdoor play is its contribution to physical development. Outdoor play is less structured, so it naturally gives children more opportunity for discovery. It presents them with a sense of freedom to run and play with more energy and enthusiasm; and as such, allows them to fully and freely experience motor skills like leaping, jumping, sprinting, and more.
It is also the most appropriate area to practice gross manipulative skills like pushing, pulling, or lifting and moving objects, catching, throwing, or even striking; providing opportunities for them to use their bodies in different ways than if they were playing indoors.
Intellectual and Social Development
The outdoors has something more to offer than just physical benefits. Cognitive and social/emotional development are areas that benefit greatly too. Outside, children are more likely to invent and express themselves, learning about the world and the people around them in ways that is impossible to replicate indoors. Whether they are sharpening their communication and language skills through imagination and pretend play; developing basic mathematical skills by keeping score and doing simple mental counts; or even fostering social integrative relationships with other children as they play together and cooperate; the nature of play learning outdoors promotes a level of autonomy and confidence that serves a much greater purpose as the child grows older and into his adult years.
Also, interestingly enough, you will find that your kid picks up different skills when you do activities outside that you normally do indoors. Building blocks on an uneven surface outside will require more dexterity and critical thinking; playing with toy cars on the grass will heighten their senses to the different surface textures and sounds produced; even arts and crafts are thought through differently, as kids can experiment with colouring over dried leaves to create embossed patterns on paper, tracing around twigs to create squiggly patterns, or even collecting nature’s bits and pieces to form a collage.
Because the world is filled with beautiful sights, sounds, and textures, it is the most natural resource to utilize when developing environmental awareness in little ones. Children who spend a huge fraction of their time acquiring their experiences through electronics such as the television, computer, or tablet games, are often using only two senses- hearing and sight- which can seriously affect their perceptual abilities in the long run. The changing nature of the outdoors, however, makes it an incredibly stimulating and multi-sensory place to play. This is extremely important in early development, as babies and toddlers learn and gain most of their experiences through their senses.
Embracing Risk in the Great Outdoors
Encourage your little ones to play outside at least once a day – even when the weather is bad. Children need to experience all types of weather, so don’t allow bad weather to stop them from having fun. Just dress appropriately.
Also, as your child grows older, the great outdoors provide an abundance of opportunities to pick up critical life skills. Instead of constantly worrying about the seemingly endless list of things that could go wrong, teach them to expect and be prepared for it; and equip them with all the knowledge they need to pull through emergencies. Fill them in about road safety, talk to them about stranger danger; older kids can even be taught how to travel by public transport and develop a ‘reporting’ protocol. Children should not be denied experiences, especially if the risks involved can be properly managed.
Keeping Outdoor Play Simple
No idea what to do? It is understandable- not all of us feel as comfortable or confident in allowing our precious little ones to venture outdoors. But it is nonetheless necessary for a holistic development, so why not start small and keep it simple? Even something as ordinary as a stroll in the park is a great way of enhancing your child’s appreciation of the natural environment. Encourage them to see, touch, hear, and smell. Whether they’re discovering the fragility of a dried leaf, making out the sounds of birds, or smelling the invigorating scent of freshly cut grass, there is so much to learn and explore without even having to plan for much of anything. And with time, you will learn that with outdoor play, there is no right or wrong way. The best thing is to just get out there and see what the day has in store for you.
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