Why Outside Playtime is Critical to Development

There seem to be more and more things competing for time in the day. With parents’ busy schedules, unpredictable weather and the temptation of television, computer games and other electronics when children arrive home after school, it is not hard to believe that, statistically, children in our country are getting a lot less unstructured outdoor time than in past generations. And that is a problem. It is important for us as educators and parents alike to recognize the importance of and to preserve unstructured outside time. Being outdoors in the natural world is a vital positive influence in every child’s development. For that reason, at our school, every class goes out to recess every morning and afternoon in all but the foulest of weather. Children staying for lunch go outside for another short lunch recess. Spending time in unstructured outside play after school and on weekends is also important for children.

Unstructured outdoor play is essential for a variety of reasons, among them:

  • Physical play increases overall fitness, builds healthier bodies, and helps prevent childhood obesity.
  • Children need to develop large and small motor skills along with cardiovascular endurance.
  • Time outdoors raises vitamin D levels, helping prevent future bone problems, diabetes, and heart disease and may also help boost the immune system.
  • As little as 20-minutes of exercise has been linked to a boost in brain function afterward.
  • Teachers know that outdoor play can help children release pent-up energy and doing so improves focus and concentration.
  • Outdoor play has been linked to improved distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness.
  • Children learn important social and cognitive skills while playing outdoors: creating and organizing their own games, developing friendships and learning to resolve conflicts.
  • Outside time allows children to learn through constructive play, social play, socio-dramatic play and rule-based games.
  • Free time outside allows children to develop observation skills and learn about the world, using all of their senses to feel the wind or sun on their skin, observe an insect or flower, or listen to birds chirping, for instance.
  • Time outside allows children to create, explore, experiment, manipulate, reconfigure, expand, influence, change, marvel, discover, practice, push their limits, yell, sing, dance and move.
  • Studies suggest that time in nature may be effective in reducing ADHD symptoms.
  • Environmental education has been linked to improved test performance evaluating critical thinking skills, math, reading, writing and listening.
  • Green spaces help reduce stress levels in children.
  • Children need free unstructured playtime to protect their emotional development.
  • A hurried lifestyle and loss of free time can contribute to anxiety and depression in children.
  • Studies show that time spent in nature enhances social interactions and interpersonal relationships.
  • New studies show physical exercise actually increases white matter in the brain and speed and connectivity of brain activity.

At home, spending time outdoors can be as easy as heading out to the backyard or playground, walking to a meet a friend, having a picnic, going to the zoo or a local park. We are lucky to have a variety of wonderful biking trails and parks very close by, such as Farrel McWhirter, Grasslawn, Anderson, Perrigo, and Marymoor parks, to name just a few. With the longer days and hopefully nicer weather of spring upon us, take advantage and spend some time outdoors with your child. You will both be glad you did.

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