The value of outdoor play

Apr 11, 2019

"I feel like a bird , flapping my wings and flying high up towards the sky!" squeals a six year old child swinging high in the park. Children love to run, swing, jump, skate , ride a bike and be out in the fresh air and sunshine. They have a great need for physical exercise and activity and a chance to use their whole body muscles. Parents will recall their childhood when hours were spent outside in the sun running around playing hide and seek, badminton, hopscotch and others. Friendships were forged and broken, new games were invented and weather elements didn't deter one from playing that last over of cricket before rushing home. Yet, the number of hours a child plays outdoors these days has reduced. Tuition classes as early as pre-school, handheld devices, TV programs , reduced park spaces in urban areas, scheduled after-school activities , working parents with busy schedules, competitive parenting and anxiety of sending children out for unsupervised play all adds up to children being chauffeured around for scheduled play dates and indoor activities rather than one hour of pure and simple unplanned play in the park.

Physical Development

Exercises such as running, jumping, skipping and playing ball games strengthen muscles, and help with gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination and overall health and wellbeing. Playing outdoors can benefit eyesight and reduce the risk of short sightedness in children. It develops their reflexes, balance and builds stronger muscles, flexibility, and bone density. These developments of the body then lead into improved fine motor control such as holding a pencil or paintbrush and using a fork. This activity also supports improved sleep as well as heart and lung function.

Stronger immunity

To build a strong immunity and generate sufficient Vitamin D, let the children play outdoors in the sun. Do not overprotect them and keep them indoors for the fear of catching a cold or getting a sunburn. A good run in the sun, will also train their body to crave for more vegetables and fruits and build a healthy appetite.

Learning about self and environment

To learn about their own physical and emotional capabilities, children must push their limits. How high can I swing?  How high can I climb? Can I go down the slide headfirst?  Can I roll on grass?  Is the pavement hard or soft to fall on? Outdoor play helps one appreciate  how we fit into the natural order of things—animals, plants, the weather, and so on. We can discover this relationship with the natural world only by experiencing it as we grow up, develop, and interact with the natural environment. A parent does not need to solve the issue when a child says - I'm bored. Let them go outside and amuse themselves in a swing or a slide, we don't need to scramble and make phone calls to organize a play date.

Social Development

Playing with other kids in the sandbox or beaches , sharing their toys with other children, gardening with their siblings,  getting messy - all this is a part of social development and helps strengthening their bonds. Young children often invent new games and rules and in this process develop communication skills, vocabulary, understand numbers as they score and count and apprehend social customs. They will fight and argue, but they will also learn how to resolve conflicts. In this global world, children end up picking multiple languages and embrace diversity at an impressionable age.

Self - Coping Mechanism

Playing outdoors is an excellent self coping mechanism for children. The ability to let off steam and focus their pent-up or negative energy into a physical activity , will release endorphins which calm the child. This in turn improves academic concentration. So an outdoor play is an essential part of academic curriculum and not just any activity kids need to do.

Unstructured play and structured sport participation go hand in hand

As the child grows, continue the free play even if they have picked a sport and working hard on it. Playing in a competitive sport will build their team work and leadership skills, growing their confidence and bringing calmness and stability as they go through the tougher teenage years. It will provide them with a perspective of seeing sports as a career option. Free play will continue to strengthen their social skills and competencies and maybe set a path for them to continue activities such as cycling and trekking even in adulthood.

Risk taking ability

Learning to ride a bicycle , climbing higher on a rope walk , sliding down a dark tunnel for the first time are all age appropriate , reasonable risks that are important for their development. Children love to push their limits and develop an understanding of a cause and effect relationship. As an overprotective parent, we tend to constantly rescue a child from a situation. This sends a message that we don’t trust them, they aren’t capable and that we can/will fix everything for them. Take a step back and play the role of an active encourager of a child’s play and attempt at a difficult challenge. This sends a message that we trust the child, we are there to support them and guide them and that the child can overcome obstacles and challenges on their own.

What can we do ?

Negotiate with our local leaders to put aside budget and plan for more parks and open spaces. Consciously include outdoor play in your child's routine. An hour in the sun and outdoors will reinvigorate the overworked parents too and strengthen the parent child bond. Encourage schools to set aside free play time everyday and not reduce recess time. In fact, there is a global campaign to celebrate and inspire outdoor learning and play in schools. On this day, thousands of schools around the world take lessons outdoors and prioritize playtime. Get your school involved in the Indian campaign and participate on 7th November 2019.

Let children be children. Let them explore the world , understand and observe their part in nature, push their limits and chase rainbows. They don't need special classes to learn about environmental conservation or weather patterns or how a plant grows or the blending of colors if they are used to playing in the parks, gardening , bicycling or just going for a run with their beloved pets. They don't need over protection, let them play in the sand and get messy. Let us not limit learning within classrooms labs and tablets. Let's simplify and declutter childhood.

Madhavi Agnihotri

A technologist passionate about how an effective education system can build a future ready generation.