I was fortunate as a child to be able to play outside a lot, especially during the Summer. By early afternoon, the neighborhood would be full of children running around and we knew that our primary requirement was to go home when the streetlights came on. Most of the children in our care don’t have this luxury. They are with us all day rather than running around their respective neighborhoods. Consequently, it’s up to us to make sure that they can get appropriate outdoor time during the day.
An important aspect of providing outdoor play is to understand why it’s necessary. Once we (including our staff members) have a solid understanding of what children learn through outside play, scheduling outside play and planning appropriate learning experiences becomes easier. So, what do children learn through outdoor play and how can we enhance that?
- Physical Development—Gross motor skills are simply learned best where there is adequate room to move. This will generally be outside. Gross motor skills are only learned through practice. Children who learn to move confidently are more likely to live active lives, which will help to combat the national epidemic of obesity.
- Cognitive Development—When outdoors, children have abundant opportunities to use their senses to observe the environment. There is growing thought that movement helps the brain to optimize its performance. Additionally, gross motor activities can provide a very effective way of improving vocabulary. Children are much more likely to remember what the words trot or gracefully mean if they can move their bodies in those ways.
- Social/Emotional Development—Physical play requires paying attention to where your body is in space and how it is impacting others around you. Children learn cooperation by taking turns or agreeing to the rules of the game they are playing. Just having the opportunity to be outside or to move around freely can be a great stress-reducer for children (and for adults).