Outdoor play is important because kids really gain a sense of mastery and competency of skills from outdoor play. When they do something like climb up a little dirt hill and manoeuvre their way down, they learn they can do this, which really adds to their sense of confidence. They also gain important physical skills because they are learning to run and use their bodies in different ways than if they were playing indoors. There’s also a lot of social interaction that goes on when they play outdoors. Because they generally receive less direction from adults, they can learn by running, yelling, and using their outside voices. They learn what’s appropriate in this setting that may not be appropriate in other settings.
In activities such as water play or sand play, kids are pouring sand back and forth into containers of different sizes, shapes, and volume. So they see that “this much water or sand fits into this container” which they can learn from. Outdoor play is less structured, so it naturally gives children more opportunity for discovery. It gives them a sense of freedom, because adults back off a little bit more outside and allow kids to run and play with more energy and enthusiasm. Even when you do activities outside, that you normally do indoors, they teach kids different skills. Building with blocks on an uneven surface outside, or playing with toy cars in the grass teaches them about different textures, sounds, and smells because the environment is naturally different from the indoors. Children learn from playing in an environment that’s not sanitized. Outdoor play is often louder, with more physical movement. Kids also engage in different social interaction. Oftentimes when children are doing activities indoors, they aren’t given a choice of who to work with on the activity. But when they go outside, you will see groups of 2 or 3 children playing together and they learn different social skills in those smaller groups. Kids also can learn about space, distance, and time in different ways. For example, a child might ask himself, “How long does it take me to run across the playground?” Outdoor play also adds to intellectual and cognitive development driven by the child’s interest. If they are interested in dramatic play or superhero play, they can do that safely outdoors with supervision. They are learning about their place in the word such as, “Who am I and how do I fit into the world?” Kids take their learning from each and every day and build on their learning with different experiences. There are a few things to keep in mind when preparing your outdoor play area. The first thing to consider is children’s safety. Ask yourself, “Is there anything that a child can get hurt on?” Then you want to create areas where children can have a variety of experiences. You don’t need a lot of money to create this kind of area. Children can create dramatic play outdoors with very little material. Allow them to create dramatic play with their minds. Let them explore their environment through their minds. Remember to make sure you supervise play if it turns into superhero play so that no one gets hurt. Kids can use their natural environment in dramatic play. Sometimes a big pile of leaves or a tree is all they need for dramatic play.
Anita Britt, Ph. D.
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles