Six reasons your children should be playing outdoors

by - Friday, April 26, 2013

As children are reported to spend more and more time indoors in front of a screen, the need for physical outdoor play becomes increasingly more important. In addition to the obvious physical benefits, we must consider the positive social and emotional improvements our children can experience by playing outside.

According to The Guardian, only 21% of children regularly play outside compared to 71% of their parents. We can blame this decrease on concern for the safety of our children, the lure of television and video-games, or the even time spent on after-school activities and classes. But the fact remains that our children don't get nearly as much time for unrestricted outdoor play as we did as children, and this can have consequences for their overall health.

Here are six important reasons why outdoor play helps us raise happier, healthier children.

1. Children need fresh air

The fresh glowing cheeks of a child who plays outside compared to the dull pallor of those who stay mostly indoors is unmistakeable. Spending time outdoors through all seasons of the year enables us to breathe in fresher air than the stale, often polluted atmosphere of our homes.

Research by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests the air inside our homes could be more polluted than that outside, meaning that children's health can be at more risk by staying indoors than exposing themselves to potential outdoor toxins.

Furthermore, we should consider that bacteria and viruses spread more easily in enclosed environments such as classrooms and indoor activity spaces. "Outdoor play enables the infectious agents to spread out and be dissipated" explains research by Johnson, Christie and Wardle. In other words, regular outdoor play helps prevent our children catching their friends' illnesses quite to frequently.

2. Encourages physical activity

Children who play indoors are more likely to be sedentary. Outdoors, there is space for children to walk or run; places to climb; opportunities to jump and skip, all of which encourage children to be more active. 

Physical activity is important to help children to burn off excess energy and maintain a healthy weight. Regular running, walking and other forms of activity also help build endurance levels resulting in increased physical health.

Climbing, throwing, skipping and playing football helps children to develop their motor skills and co-ordination which are essential for healthy physical development. It should also be noted that those who enjoy regular physical activity throughout childhood tend to exercise more regularly as adults.

3. Emotional well-being

"Vigorous outdoor play activity can help relieve the child’s boredom or stress, and satisfy the child’s natural urge for adventure" explains Rhonda Clements in her Investigation in the Status of Outdoor Play. When playing outside, children can enjoy messy and dirty activities, be more noisy and feel less restriction in their play than when spending time indoors, allowing them to be more expressive and less concerned with being disciplined for their rowdy activity.

A report by The National Trust suggests that "as little as five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can improve mood and self-esteem by a significant margin" and that long term, regular contact with nature can improve levels of satisfaction with life in general.

4. Outdoor play inspires creativity

Outdoor activity offers greater potential for children to choose how they play. Building dens, collecting leaves or unusual rocks; playing hide and seek or enjoying role-play games encourages children to use their imagination and develop important reasoning skills. 

Creative play scenarios provide "an opportunity to verbalize desires, likes, and dislikes without restrictions on noise or activity" writes Clements. This in turn raises self-esteem and attracts the appreciation of peers and family members.

5. Opportunities for social interaction

Playing locally with neighbouring children or meeting new people at the park provides valuable opportunities for social interaction. The relaxed restrictions of outdoor play provide a friendly environment for children to get to know each other through creative and competitive play.

Situations of social conflict (such as disagreements, friends falling out) still provide positive outcomes as children learn resolution skills on their own, without having to rely on the presence of adults.

6. Developing interest in the natural world

In his report on Natural Childhood, Steven Moss suggests that "a generation of children appears to be suffering from a lack of contact with the natural world, with serious consequences both for themselves and for society as a whole".

Many children develop an interest in the natural world through documentaries, their formal education and Internet research, but there is no substitute for experiencing the beauty and wonder of nature in it's native form.

By observing the changing seasons, investigating garden wildlife and exploring green spaces, children are able to connect with nature, which research proves is beneficial not only for the individual but for communities and society as a whole. "The critical age of influence appears to be before 12 years, explains Dr. William Bird in his works for the RSPB. "Before this age contact with nature in all its forms, but in particular wild nature, appears to strongly influence a positive behaviour towards the environment."

Join the conversation!

Outdoor play forms some of the strongest memories of my own childhood. Back then, we didn't have home computers or video-games, children's television was only shown for a couple of hours a day and we were not only expected to play outdoors after school, we actively wanted to! 

Yes, society has changed. As parents of the 21st century we have concerns for safety, for ensuring our children receive the best education and are entertained according to their needs, yet outdoor play still remains fundamental for our children's healthy development and well-being. It is not essential that we encourage and nurture this important aspect of growing up?

Do you encourage your children to play outdoors or provide regular opportunities for exploration of green spaces? Perhaps you feel your child's time is better spent on more formal activities than unrestricted play?

Please feel free to join the conversation by leaving your own experiences and commentary below.

Photo credit: Alice Popkorn, via Flickr

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