Playing outside provides unlimited opportunities for creativity, imagination, connecting to the natural environment and for personal growth. Think back to a time when you used to play as a child. Can you picture where this was? Most adults, when asked, find that their favourite play memories involve an outdoor, natural space.
There has been much research on the benefits of outdoor play. Helen Bilton, an Educational Advisor and author of ‘Playing Outside’ describes the main benefits in her view:
‘Firstly, outside is a natural environment for children. There is a freedom associated with the space which cannot be replicated inside. Children playing and learning in an outdoor environment appear more active, absorbed, motivated and purposeful.’
Secondly, the environment where we play affects our emotions. Children will often be less inhibited outside, and more willing to join in with activities, talk and come out of their shells. In overcrowded spaces children’s behaviour can change, some can become more aggressive, while others become more solitary (Bates 1986).
Outdoors is the perfect place to learn through movement, which is one of the four vehicles through which children can learn, the others being play, talk and sensory experiences. All of these happen more naturally outside, but with so much freedom of space and so many opportunities to move in a variety of ways, outdoor play supports learning through movement particularly well.
The health benefits
There are also clear health benefits associated with outdoor learning. Children need daily exercise, vigorous enough to become out of breath. NHS guidelines say that children under 5 need three hours exercise a day, through bone strengthening, muscle building and cardiovascular activity. Outdoor activities like running, climbing, digging and swinging from branches cover all of these, whilst having fun!
Exercise also improves children’s emotional well being, encouraging relaxation, calmness and a heightened sense of well being (Armstrong 1996).
There are other health benefits to simply being outdoors. Research published recently by England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies found that there has been a rise in cases of rickets in children. This is from lack of exposure to sunlight leading to vitamin D deficiency — not something you will need to worry about, if your child spends lots of time playing outside.
Socially, children benefit by learning through negotiating plans with their friends, maybe to build a shelter for an animal or working out whose turn it is first on a rope swing. They learn to co-operate through making up their own rules of play in outdoor made-up games, and through building dens together. Finally, children (and adults!) form stronger bonds through playing outside, and experiencing nature together – through ‘daring’ to slide down a steep muddy slope, or through discovering something unexpected together. Eg. a bone, a bird’s nest or an egg shell. Experiencing a new discovery of themselves and the world outside – together, can have profound effects.