Outdoor Play

Baby College

Playing outside is fun and exciting but, as it turns out, it is also important for children’s learning and development! From pushing your newborn in their buggy, to taking your toddler to an adventure playground, outdoors gives children lots to explore. It is an exciting sensory and learning experience for babies and toddlers. Babies will enjoy looking around and absorbing all this new interesting information. Toddlers will embrace the opportunity to explore different spaces, run around, interact with other children and touch pebbles, leaves and pine cones. Nowadays it is becoming more and more important to recognise the significance of outdoor play, especially since changes in our societies have led to more sedentary lifestyles for both children and adults. Indeed, a sharp contrast to the previous generation’s childhood is the degree to which this is being spent indoors. A lot of factors contribute to that, including the increase in time spent in front of screens and interacting with electronic devices, the emphasis on structured activities, concerns about sun exposure, a culture of fear about possible accidents and, for some families, the lack of safe outdoor places to play. 

Let’s go outside mama: 8 benefits of outdoor play 1. Sunshine. 

We need sun exposure to make vitamin D, a vitamin that plays a significant role in our healthy bodily functions. Sun exposure also promotes healthy sleep and, in turn, our mood. For babies, research shows that fresh air and sunshine during the day helps them sleep better at night!

2. Exercising and developing motor skills. 

It is extremely beneficial for children to be active for at least an hour every day, and outdoor play is one way to make sure that happens. They need the opportunity to use their whole body and develop their gross and fine motor skills. Sending children outdoors, especially with something like a ball or a bike, encourages active play, which is the best exercise for children. Playing outdoors in a garden or local park encourages babies to crawl further to reach all these exciting new things. Babies and toddlers can also develop their fine motor skills as they pick up natural treasures like  leaves and pebbles.

3. Boosting learning and developing executive functions.  Outside there is so much for babies and toddlers to sense, see, explore and learn. This is critical, as babies and young children learn and  accumulate experience using all their senses. The variety of the outdoor space offers an incredibly stimulating and multi-sensory experience – an ideal place to support learning. Executive functions are very important skills that help us plan, prioritise, problem-solve, multitask and be creative; they are therefore crucial for our success. Being outside gives children plenty of opportunities to practice these important skills through unstructured time. Indeed, they need time to be allowed to make up their own games, explore, discover, and entertain themselves!

4. Taking risks.  Although risk taking can be a bit stressful for parents, it is important for children to take some risks. It is important for them as they learn the limits of what they can and cannot do. Risk taking also boosts their confidence and bravery, skills much needed to face life’s challenges. They can break an arm from trying to climb on a tree and can be hurt when trying to make a friend and get rejected but that does not mean they should not try, as there are lessons to be learned from failure as there are from success.  5. Boosting the immune system.  A number of recent studies have shown that reasonable exposure to dirt and germs in early childhood can actually boost children’s immune systems. Exposure to microbes that are prevalent outdoors and contact with animals can establish a stronger, more robust immune system and can prevent allergies. Furthermore, bacteria present in the surface of the skin can actually help fight inflammation when our children get hurt. 6. Reducing sedentary lifestyle. 

Outdoor play can help children develop a positive disposition for physical activity. Children who engage in more physical activities at school also tend to be more energetic at home, while children that lack active physical activity, engage in more sedentary behaviours at home, such as use of electronic devices and watching TV. Children who enjoy the outdoors are more likely to enjoy hiking, jogging, bicycling, mountain climbing in adulthood. This is important, as obesity becomes a growing national concern.


7. Appreciating the natural environment. 

Playing outdoors is a great way to enjoy nature and learn to appreciate the environment. If children grow up enjoying the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing trees and mountains, playing in the water, or looking at the ocean, they are more likely to understand the value of the natural world and become environmentally aware adults.


8. Making new friends. 

It is important for children to learn to approach people and to make friends. They need to learn how to work together, how to share and cooperate, and how to treat other people. The unstructured setting of outdoor play offers great opportunities for children to interact and socialise from an early age!


(This blog was kindly written for Baby College by Nina Politimou, Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, Institute of Education and an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, Department of Psychological Sciences) www.babycollege.co.za

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