Open the Door to Outdoor Fun

by Dana Smith Bader
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When I was a child, except for the mandatory school hours indoors, I spent most of my time outdoors.  We used to live right near the beach, and the sandy shore and sea were my playgrounds.  I used to do cartwheels in the sand, collect shells, and poke a long stick at anything strange and wonderful, living or non-living, that I discovered in the sand or in the shallow pools of water that collected between the rocks.  I also had quite a collection of hermit crabs I dug out of the sand.  One day, I even collected a mostly dead snake in a jar, filled it with sea water, and brought it home as a treasure for my mom.  She was not as fascinated as I was with my latest discovery.

When I got bored with the beach, I went out the back gate of our garden into a grand construction site that had tall ‘mountains’ of sand, concrete blocks, and lots of loose wires and whatnots to ponder over and pocket for a take-home collection.  My sister and I and the neighbour kids used to play ‘King of the Mountain’ until we could barely crawl up the sand heap.  Just as the sun started to set, we would trudge home sandy and sweaty, take a much needed bath, and then have a quick dinner.  After dinner, we might be permitted to watch one show on TV before going to bed, but, mostly, we would crawl exhausted into bed, try to read a bedtime story, but fall soundly to sleep on about the third page.

Today, however, most children have very different lives.  From playing on iPads to watching television, children seem to be spending more and more time indoors.  The increase in numbers of children spending a predominate amount of time inside has led to numerous studies being published highlighting the negative impact staying indoors is having on their health and development.  At the same time, research has also discovered that there are many benefits to children playing outdoors, including, but not limited to the following:

Learning – Children are naturally drawn to playing outside. By putting educational equipment outdoors like mud kitchens, life-size blocks, and explorative science equipment like nets and magnifying glasses, children are soon exploring the natural world around them and learning through play, which is a fun way of helping children to learn new information and skills.  Moreover, outdoor learning helps children to think of learning as an ongoing process instead of just something done in the classroom.

Creativity – Outdoor play is great for encouraging children’s creativity.  Away from the constraints and confinement of indoor play, being outside children’s imaginations are often stimulated by the objects around them, and they quickly tap into creativity.

Health – Playing outdoors is healthy.  Children have a great need for physical exercise and activity and a chance to use their muscles to run, swing, climb, jump, and ride a bike.  With more room to play, children are more active when outdoors, which helps them to build strong bones, muscles, and good fitness levels, while enabling them to burn off extra energy and calories.  Also, being in the sunshine, even in winter, means children naturally absorb vitamin D.

Coordination – Much of what children do outdoors requires coordinating different parts of the body for movement.  For instance, when children are pushed in a swing, or when they propel a swing themselves, they engage all of their muscles to hold on, balance, and coordinate their body to the rhythm of moving back and forth.  Swinging also provides children with first-hand knowledge and experience of cause and effect and of understanding spatial learning, such as up and down and back and forth.

Social Skills – Outdoor spaces are usually less crowded than indoors, so they are less intimidating and they help children to naturally come out of their shells and be more social.  As a result, outdoors, children are more willing to join in games and activities, while they are also more likely to talk to different children and make new friends with a little less adult supervision.

Well-Being – Giving children the freedom to play outdoors helps them to feel happier and calmer.  Not only do they get rid of pent up energy, particularly if they tend to be fidgety when sitting for long periods of time, but the physical activity helps them to be more focused when they do return indoors to the classroom.

Independence – Larger play areas which are often found outdoors allow children to be away from direct adult supervision.  Children are still supervised, but usually from a greater distance, which helps them to learn independence in interacting with other children and in playing by themselves.  They also learn how to take turns, to pick themselves up when they fall, and how to negotiate unfamiliar equipment, all of which helps children to be more self-reliant.

Exploration – Often outdoor play equipment has a little more risk than indoor toys.  For example, toys that require balance and coordination, such as skates, scooters, and bikes, or even a high slide that takes courage to slide down, encourage the development of self-confidence and satisfy children’s interest in exploration.  When children use slides they might be afraid to go down, or try challenging play trails, they learn to push their boundaries and become good at risk assessment.

Overall, outdoor play is good for our children, and we need more of it in our children’s lives.  If you are a stay-at-home mom, bring your morning routine outdoors, or find a neighbourhood park where you can bring your child to play.  If you child is in pre-school, be sure to choose a nursery that has adequate outdoor facilities.  If your child is school age, make sure the daily routine includes plenty of breaks outdoors.  If you open the doors to outdoor fun, your children will reap the benefits and be happier and healthier in the long run.

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