The lighter evenings are giving children more opportunity to get outside and play. It’s not just fun to be out in the open, research increasingly shows that outdoor play has important health, social and learning benefits for children that last right into adulthood.
Outside play makes children more physically active, burning up calories and raising their overall fitness levels. This has important health benefits, minimizing risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Parents can use kids’ love of movement and challenge to set obstacle courses, improving coordination as well as their sense of balance. As kids climb trees, scramble down slopes or play on swings, slides and roundabouts, they strengthen muscles, bones and even eyesight in ways that are not possible indoors. The benefits of physical play don’t just stop in childhood. Active children become healthier adults who are more likely to enjoy sports and the outdoors later in life.
Playing in green spaces is good for the mind, too. Going for a walk in the woods or spending time together in a park is a great way for parents and kids to wind down together. Studies show that outdoor activity increases confidence and curiosity about the world. At the same time it can help reduce anxiety and depression). Richard Louv, author of the influential Last Child in the Woods, writes that children who play outdoors are more likely to have a sense of self-worth, along with improved learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being.
Development and learning
The great outdoors gives unmatched opportunities to develop children’s senses and learning skills. Away from a TV or computer screen, they experience a constant flow of new smells, textures, sights and sounds. The touch of a flower petal, the sensation of sand between toes and the sounds of birds in the evening all improve their perceptual development. Natural England, which promotes contact with the natural environment, reports that kids do better at school and develop better environmental awareness if they spend time outside. Anything from growing food to observing wildlife or even just experiencing the changing seasons offers a great learning experience.
Children who play outdoors make more friends and laugh more, according to Dr Tessa Livingstone, from the BBC series Child of Our Time. Any parent knows how satisfying it is to watch their child team up with a new friend for the afternoon. Unstructured outdoor play helps develop social skills, giving kids the freedom to interact with each other at their own pace. Learning to complete tasks with others gives valuable life skills, along with a greater sense of responsibility, adventure and self-motivation. Children’s play could be good for communities, too. In a survey for the pressure group Play England, most parents said that greater outdoor play would bring neighbourhoods and different families together.
Encouraging independence, outdoor play helps children learn to manage risk. To make the most of all-weather play, kids learn the need for responsible planning, wearing sunscreen and hats on hot days and wellies and waterproof on rainy days. If kids play in wild landscapes, they learn to prevent – and treat – scratches and stings. Traffic skills are also essential for playing outdoors. Teaching a child to cross roads safely gives parents a sense of security and children the confidence that comes from a greater sense of freedom.
What are you waiting for?
The outdoors give children the space and opportunities to learn and grow healthily. Simply exploring and inventing games are ideal. But if parents need a little inspiration, suggestions for outdoor activities are in the NHS Change4Life booklet, the Love Outdoor Play website and Last Child in the Woods. So make the most of this spring and summer: get outside and play.
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Mike Darby is a freelance writer who covers a range health topics, from exercise and wellness to insurance cover.