Let them Play – Outdoors

I want to share a story with you. While camping not too long ago, there was this poor child being scolded at every turn. I heard “don’t do that” and “don’t go there – it’s dangerous” basically on repeat. So he abided and went off to find something ‘safe’ to do. A little while later, another group of children arrived and they started exploring, running in mud, getting dirty, manipulating whatever materials they had available to them, and turning the world into their own personal playground. The other kid stood off to the side, in awe. He was hesitant to join in when asked, and kept looking to his group of adults for permission.

It made me think… and research. While we all know that play is good, do you know exactly how essential it is for the healthy development of your children? And not just play – but outdoor play.

I know it can be difficult to find the time or space to let your children play outdoors. Unfortunately most of us aren’t camping every day! Children don’t get the chance to play as much as they should because life is hectic, the world is dangerous, and (heaven forbid) medical bills are expensive.

But are you risking your child’s health and development by hindering their play time? Short answer: yes.

Here’s a very brief overview of the benefits of outdoor play:

  1. Physical

Children learn to master basic motor skills (like running and jumping), manipulative skills (like building something), and stability, through play. Children who do not master these motor skills are at a higher risk for physical injury as well as less ability or willingness to participate in sport. Playing outdoors also increases your metabolism. Children have to be exposed to germs in order to build up a defence to germs. In contrast to what many think, a lack of outdoor exposure actually increases your child’s risk for illness and injury.

  1. Cognitive

Our brains are like trees – the growth of the branches can be manipulated. If you want a branch to grow a certain way, you can train it to do so. If you don’t want a branch to be there, you can cut it down. It’s pretty much the same with our brains. The more you practice a certain skill, the more pathways you will develop in your brain to help you with this. If you do not practice a certain skill, the pathway will slowly disappear. Play helps to strengthen the brain ‘branches’ responsible for concentration, creativity, problem solving, language development, curiosity, attention, learning ability, risk calculation, and emotional regulation. Important things, no?

  1. Academic

Outdoor play reinforces concepts that are taught in school. Children are more likely to remember concepts that they understand, and more likely to understand them if they can apply it to something. Play offers a multitude of open-ended opportunities for this! It is also proven to strengthen concentration, memory, attention, and problem solving skills – all essential for academic performance.

  1. Emotional

Children need a non-threatening context in which to explore their thoughts and emotions, and to test their boundaries and capabilities. Children want to (and should) take risks. Now, by risks I don’t mean running through traffic or fighting a bear! I mean climbing a tree or jumping off the monkey bars. Things that seem so big and scary to them but won’t necessarily kill them. Hazards are harmful elements which pose actual physical threat, such as broken glass or rusty nails. Risk is not the same. Risk involves calculation and doing something which is slightly out of your comfort zone or capabilities, in order to test and expand your capabilities.

Hazards are bad, but risk is good.

Remove all potential hazards from a play area so that you can feel more comfortable with your child taking risks. This will help them to develop sound judgement, critical thought, resilience, risk management, and confidence.  Trust that your child knows their limits. They don’t want to hurt themselves. But they need to be given the space to challenge themselves in order to become an independent adult one day. Studies have shown that children who are given the opportunity to challenge themselves through outdoor play develop a responsible attitude towards risk-taking in other aspects of their lives. They were more willing to engage with difficult academic tasks and were more prepared to learn from their mistakes, compared with children who were not afforded the same opportunities for outdoor play.

We need to start looking at outdoor play as a necessity for young bodies and minds, rather than a luxury. So, in conclusion – let them play!

One more thing before I go: Children learn more from what adults do than what they say. So get involved. Play with them. Keep their spirit of enquiry alive!

Natasha Potter
Registered Counsellor / Educator / Facilitator

Email: hello@letustalk.co.za