Posted on / in Play, Preschool

The Magic of Outdoor Play

Outdoor play sits at the heart of our philosophy. Why? Because we wholeheartedly believe, and have seen, the significant positive effects playing in nature can have on children’s play, social behaviours, mental health and sense of self. 

But did you know, recent research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that fewer than 8% of Australian children play outside every day? Not only that, fewer than one in five Australian children achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day. 

Nature is a dynamic, flexible, and versatile place where children of all ages can choose, create, change and be in charge of their play environment. Playing outdoors is not the same as playing and learning indoors. There are unique benefits to playing and learning in an outdoor environment, particularly in nature, that don’t come as readily indoors.

So, what are these benefits of playing outdoors? Here are just a few.

mixed age grouping bush kindy

Benefits of Outdoor Play

Physical benefits

The list of physical benefits of playing outdoors is immense.

When children have the space to play outdoors, they are running, jumping, climbing, and generally moving more with greater freedom. These movements are often more complex and involve significantly more muscle groups, increasing children’s advanced motor skill development, including coordination, balance, and agility, and improving muscle strength.

“When children are allowed to play the way they want to play in stimulating environments, they move more, sit less and play longer” says Dr. Valerie Carson.

The natural environment provides children with the ultimate opportunity to engage in open-ended play, with a tangible space where they can observe, engage, and receive feedback. They are more likely to engage in imaginative play and be curious about their environment. They will test their hypotheses with no set ways of playing or learning, allowing for freedom of exploration which promotes self-esteem growth. 

Social benefits

Nature inspires curiosity and inquiry. It supports a child’s creativity, encourages exploration and is a catalyst for learning through play. 

When playing in nature, children will collaborate and communicate, further developing their social and communication skills as they navigate how to work together in groups, share, negotiate, and solve conflicts. As a result, they’re more likely to learn new skills and overcome challenges, which promotes self-confidence, resilience, and self-advocacy. 

Not only that, outdoor play and playing with nature, nurtures a love and appreciation for the global environment. The continuing sustainability of our planet will require people to be able to solve problems, to adapt to a variety of situations, and communicate effectively with others. “Our future society will need people who seek adventure and are on the lookout for better ways of doing things; people who have had opportunities to develop and express their creativity, who carry those experiences inside, and who can apply this quality in a wide range of life circumstances” says Christine Kiewra World Forum Foundation Global Leader for Young Children.

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Emotional and intellectual benefits

When children are exploring the outdoor environment, they are inventing games and experiencing feelings of independence – utilising all five senses as they play. They are also cultivating the ability to organise, make decisions and work individually and with their friends to create games, solve problems and implement their ideas and solutions. 

By expanding the learning environment, they have more opportunities to meet new people on common ground where they’re able to practice meeting and developing friendships and overcoming disagreements to work together. By comparison, ‘children who do not have the opportunities to play outdoors often (and with other children) demonstrate increased evidence of anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and self-absorption’ according to a recent study by Psychologist Peter Gray

Research has shown that children who regularly engage in unstructured play outdoors have improved regulation, confidence, and cognitive functioning. And let’s not forget the social bonds and early attachment relationships that are formed when children play with a parent or caregiver, reducing the likelihood of emotion regulation, behavioural and relationship difficulties in the future. 

Health benefits

Playing in nature allows children to get their hands dirty and exposes them to microbes that help to build and strengthen their immune systems. It also exposes them to sunlight, which regulates human physiology and behaviour.

“Approximately 100 bodily functions have daily rhythms that require exposure to the sun’s day and night schedule for optimal function. The sunlight keeps these functions on a precise schedule and helps them work in harmony with each other” says Ginny Yurich, Founder of the 1000 hours outside movement. 

There is also a growing body of research that suggests outdoor play can lower a child’s risk of developing asthma and of developing myopia (near-sightedness). When playing outdoors, children are forced to look into the distance and are exposed to outdoor light, slowing the axial growth of the eye which contributes to myopia.

How to encourage outdoor play at home

For Babies

  • Play with bubbles outdoors
  • Crawl on the grass, under outdoor furniture or through old boxes on the ground
  • Go for a walk in the pram and watch the trees, leaves and branches move
  • Enjoy some tummy time on a blanket outside
  • Take your jam session outside with a few pots, pans, and instruments
  • Water play is perfect for outside play!

For Toddlers

  • Play in the sand, mud, or small amounts of water – don’t forget to dress appropriately 
  • Go for a walk and jump over stones or cracks in the footpath, into puddles or towards objects
  • Create a sensory bin using natural items
  • Take your story time outside under a tree
  • Collect items from the backyard and discover patterns using nature rubbing

For Preschoolers 

  • Go on a scavenger hunt around your neighbourhood
  • Get into the garden and start planting or tending to seedlings
  • Decorate pet rocks to display in the garden
  • Create pressed flower or daisy chains
  • Let Preschoolers create their own fun and games. Sit back and watch their imagination come alive

So, get outdoors and have some fun!

Why not explore our outdoor environment for yourself?

Written By

Suzie has always loved working with children and graduated from Boston College’s School of Education with a Bachelor’s in Human Development/Applied Psychology and Communication.

Since having her first child and moving to Australia with her husband, Suzie has been excited to be working with Sustainable Play Preschool where her values in sustainability, education and care for the natural world all come together beautifully.