Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Healthy Development
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Coteachers Marissa and Kate are out for a walk around the block with a small group of 18- to 30-month-olds. The sky is a brilliant blue and there are bright green grass shoots and spring leaves to touch and smell. Two-and-a-half-year-old Aisha approaches Marissa, eyes shining, clutching a treasured object in her hand. She uncurls her fingers to reveal an acorn. “Look!” she says. “What dis?”
“Wow! That’s an acorn. It fell from the tree last fall,” Marissa answers. “If you plant it in the ground, it will grow into a big tree.”
Aisha discovers two more acorns and shares them with Brady, who is 2 years old. Kate offers Aisha and Brady small bags they can use to collect more acorns and other interesting objects they find during the walk. The group’s progress around the block is slow as the children find twigs, old brown leaves, new green leaves, and more acorns to bring back to the center.
It can be challenging to take young children outside—from naps to mealtimes and sunscreen to mittens, a trip outdoors might feel like too much hassle. Additionally, play outside may seem unruly, overwhelming, or lacking in learning opportunities. But outdoor play is worth the time and effort.
What are the benefits of outdoor play?
1. It invites children to learn science
As seen in the opening vignette, you don’t have to plan for science lessons when you take young children outside. Children are natural explorers and discoverers, and you can bring whatever interests them back to your early childhood setting for further exploration. By turning their questions into group inquiry projects, you’ll soon have several starting points for emergent curriculum. An acorn won’t grow quickly enough to satisfy a curious child—it takes two months for the first shoots to appear! But there are faster-growing seeds (peas, green beans, corn) perfect for classroom experiments. Picture books like The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss, and Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert, add early literacy to the mix while building children’s vocabulary and knowledge.
2. It creates opportunities for social interaction and collaboration
One-on-one interactions, like the conversation between Aisha and Marissa in the vignette, help build a foundation for future teacher relationships that will occur when children enter school. Marissa’s interest and delight in Aisha’s discovery reinforce Aisha’s knowledge that she’s important and her ideas matter. Outdoor play also provides a chance to practice social and emotional skills with other children, including problem solving, turn taking, encouragement, self-control, safe risk taking, and following the rules of a game. And outdoor play provides opportunities to develop empathy; for example, imagine one child encouraging another to try the slide or a child comforting another who has fallen down while running.
3. It promotes physical health
The obesity rate for US children ages 2 to 5 is 14 percent, and it rises to over 40 percent for middle-aged adults, leading to an increased risk of health problems like diabetes and heart disease (Hales et al. 2017). That’s one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a “prescription for play” at every well-child visit through age 2 (Yogman et al. 2018, 10) and Nemours Health and Prevention Services recommends daily, supervised outdoor time for children from birth to age 5 (Hughes 2009). Specifically, Nemours calls for toddlers to have at least 30 minutes of structured (adult-led) physical activity and at least 60 minutes of unstructured (child-led) physical activity each day. Outdoor play is a great way to model the joy of physical activity. When children run, jump, climb, throw and kick balls, and ride toys that require balance, they also build gross motor skills and start developing a habit of being active.
4. It invites new contexts for learning
You can use outdoor spaces to create intentional learning activities that are difficult to execute inside. There’s great value in looking at books about nature in the shade of a tree, pouring (and splashing!) water at an outdoor water table, building extra large structures in the sandbox or mud, collecting leaves, watching a parade of ants, and playing pretend on a playground structure. To make the most of your outdoor time, think about creative, joyful, engaging activities that capitalize on children’s need to move and enthusiasm for doing so, while also achieving other curricular goals. For example, you might create a sorting game in which children have to find all the yellow balls and all the red balls hidden on the playground, then sort them into two groups.
5. It promotes better sleep
A study of 2- to 5-year-olds showed that children who play outdoors sleep better at night (Deziel 2017). This may be due to the physical activity, stress reduction, and exposure to natural light that come with playing outdoors (Coyle 2011). You may want to share this information with families—a tired, happy child is one who sleeps well!
6. It gives children a chance to take appropriate risks
Toddlers are all about challenging themselves to do new and difficult things—pet a dog, climb some stairs, venture a little farther away from a caregiver and then return. Playing outside provides opportunities to run faster, climb higher, jump farther, and more—all under the watchful eye of a caring adult.
7. It may lead to better learning outcomes once children return to other activities
Research shows that older children are more attentive and productive in the classroom when recess—indoors or outdoors—is part of the school day (Council on School Health 2013). If older children need a brain break, it follows that younger ones do too.
8. It supports STEM skills
Remember making mud pies and forts when you were a child? The outdoors is the perfect place for big (and messy) projects that support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills, such as building, sand and water play, and investigations of the natural world. Almost any indoor activity can be brought outside for further exploration.
9. It anchors children to the real world
Talking with a child about an illustration of a bird in a picture book is good, but sharing the book and the experience in the real world is even better: “I wonder what that robin is looking for in the grass? Oh, look! It got a worm!” Children develop more comprehensive knowledge about their world when they have a chance to watch, observe, predict, and learn in the moment.
Playing outdoors has benefits for both young children and educators. It’s a refreshing pause in the day’s schedule—time set aside to look and listen, explore and observe, move and let loose. Time spent outside can lead to better physical and mental health, improved sleep, and cognitive, social, and emotional gains for young children. Ensuring that outdoor play is an integral part of your child care and education setting’s daily schedule supports early learning across all domains and unleashes a whole lot of joy—for you and for children!
Think about it
- Reflect on your feelings about being outside. What do you enjoy or dislike about being outdoors?
- What are your goals for outdoor play? (These can differ from day to day, depending on children’s needs, the season, and the spaces and materials you have access to for structured versus unstructured activities.)
- What routines can you create that will assist you in getting children outdoors? (Some programs have outdoor time at the beginning and end of every day so they don’t have to deal with coats and hats in the middle of the day.)
- What classroom/programmatic roadblocks exist that may make it harder to get children outdoors? How might you tackle them?
- How can you share children’s outdoor activities and accomplishments with their families?
- Mix it up: provide a balance of structured play (in which you choose the goals and initiate activities that will meet them) and unstructured play.
- When the weather outside is frightful . . . dress appropriately and make it part of the adventure! For example, observe the sound and smell of rain, the splashes boots make in puddles, and the way rainwater collects on leaves. (If possible, have some extra outdoor gear on hand for children who are not adequately dressed for the conditions.)
- The world is your canvas! Try drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, or use rollers or big brushes to paint with water.
- Start a collection: have children collect specific objects—leaves, pinecones, rocks, or whatever interests them. Use these items for sorting activities when you return to the classroom. Items can be organized by shape, color, or texture.
- Document discoveries: snap photos or take video of children’s discoveries and experiments in the outdoor “classroom.” Post photos or videos in a place where children and their families can see them. Create a classroom book that shows what children are doing and learning outside.
Council on School Health. 2013. “The Crucial Role of Recess in School.” Policy statement. Pediatrics 131 (1). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/1/183.
Coyle, K.J. 2011. Green Time for Sleep Time: Three Ways Nature and Outdoor Time Improve Your Child’s Sleep: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers. Reston, VA: National Wildlife Federation. www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Be%20Out%20There/BeOutThere_GreenTimeforSleepTi....
Deziel, S. 2017. “5 Reasons Why Every Kid Should Play Outside.” Today’s Parent. www.todaysparent.com/kids/kids-health/unexpected-benefits-of-outdoor-play/.
Hales, C.M., M.D. Carroll, C.D. Fryar, & C.L. Ogden. 2017. “Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016.” NCHS Data Brief #288. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf.
Hughes, D. 2009. Best Practices for Physical Activity: A Guide to Help Children Grow Up Healthy for Organizations Serving Children and Youth. Newark, DE: Nemours Health and Prevention Services. www.nemours.org/content/dam/nemours/www/filebox/service/preventive/nhps/paguidelines.pdf.
Yogman, M., A. Garner, J. Hutchinson, K. Hirsh-Pasek, & R.M. Golinkoff. 2018. “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development.” Clinical Report. Pediatrics 142 (3): 1–18. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/142/3/e20182058....
Rocking & Rolling is written by infant and toddler specialists and contributed by ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization working to promote the health and development of infants and toddlers by translating research and knowledge into a range of practical tools and resources for use by the adults who influence the lives of young children. The column can be found online at NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/yc/columns.
Kathy Kinsner, MSEd, is senior manager of parenting resources for ZERO TO THREE. She has worked as a reading specialist, as an Emmy-winning kids’ TV producer, and as a creator of educational materials for parents, teachers, and kids of all ages.