Outdoor Play and Your Child’s Development

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While some of us focus on the political state of our country, I am focused on the politics of the playground – specifically, recess. Truly not just recess, but all unstructured outdoor playtime set aside for young children.

As parents today struggle with carefully planning their children’s schedules, it’s important that they define the line across which their children go from being enriched, to being overscheduled. In schools, the quest for higher standardized test scores has recess being cut out and extra class-time added in.

What about having time to play outside?

No games with rules coordinated by adults, no testing or levels to pass – just play. Unstructured, outdoor play is essential to the healthy lifestyle of a young child. What are the benefits of this type of spontaneous, unstructured, outdoor play? Let’s take a look.

1. Exercise

This one is a no-brainer. Our country has a childhood obesity problem. Perhaps even an epidemic. Let’s get our kids moving! Put on the music and make up some dance moves, push a friend on the swings or set up an obstacle course at the local playground. The possibilities are limitless.

2. Practicing Fine and Gross Motor Skills

Take a look at any playground and you’ll see children jumping, running, and hopping. They might be learning to “pump” their legs on the swings, alternate feet to climb a ladder, tie a shoe lace, manipulate a ball, or balance while riding a scooter. This is important work.

3. Imaginative Play and Self Expression

Whether with chalk on the sidewalk, climbing-structure pirate ships, or putting on a show, outdoor, open playtime allows children to use their interests to express themselves.

4. Improved Attention Span in the Classroom

Any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that outdoor play helps children let off steam and recharge their little batteries which, in turn, leads to (drum roll, please), better standardized test scores!

5. Social Skills and Collaboration

When children are outside playing they’re likely to meet some new friends. These experiences teach them how to introduce themselves, get to know another person, manage personality differences and problem solve so that everyone enjoys playing together. Creating and playing games, with and without rules, supports children’s ability to think critically, get along, and work in groups.

6. Freedom to Experiment

Opportunities to assess risks and make choices help children learn self control and self discipline. If a friend jumps from the top of the ladder, should I? What are the rules I’ve learned? This “self-talk” is one of the goals of positive discipline. We want children to be able to think through and make good choices even when (especially when) a grown up isn’t on top of them.

7. Number Relationships

This one is often overlooked, but keeping score during a game or counting jumping jacks supports math skills.

8. Learning to Appreciate Their Environment

Children who play outdoors use all five senses to discover what’s around them and develop a love of nature. These children have the opportunity to consider their effect on the environment and what choices they can make to help it thrive.

9. Language and Communication Skills

When children introduce themselves to others, or ask to join in someone else’s play, they are learning to communicate. Most park and playgrounds allow children of all ages to play together. Younger ones learn language skills from older children, and they all learn to communicate their wants and needs.

10. Exercise

Yes, I have it on here twice because it’s so important. Children who are physically active tend to sleep and eat better. And they’re happier and healthier!

I really could go on, but 10 felt like a nice round number. Certainly outdoor play for young children should be supervised. In fact, appropriate supervision is a key element to successful recess and outdoor play. But adults should also be conscious of taking a step back. Let young children negotiate through challenges and if need be, step in to model problem solving, rather than providing rules or answers to conflict.

Spontaneous, unstructured, outdoor play improves all aspects of a child’s well being. So, close whichever electronic device you are using to read this article and get OUT!


Dana Rosenbloom has a master’s degree in Infant and Parent Development and Early Intervention and has been working with children and families for over 10 years. Dana’s Kids provides parent education, play and behavior therapy, special education services, parent workshops and support groups, and professional development. To learn more about Dana and Dana’s Kids please visit www.DanasKids.com.  You can also follow Dana on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DanasKids and Twitter: DJRkids.

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