Spring is in the air and the days of indoor recess are hopefully ending soon!  Maybe you live in a place with nice weather most of the year or maybe you work in a district that has a generous weather policy.  Unfortunately, I live and work in Chicago and one of the districts I currently work in has a super strict weather policy which means the poor students and teachers haven’t been able to get outside consistently for months.  Regardless, since this month is all about recreation and leisure on the blog, I want to take some time to talk about the importance of outdoor play for all kids.

A shift in the way kids play

Kids simply do not play how they used to. ALL kids are spending less and less time outdoors playing and instead are spending time indoors doing structured activities.  There has been an increase in the amount of time kids are spending in front of the TV or on tablets.  While structured indoor activities and technology certainly have their place, this major shift in play patterns has already shown an impact on kids’ development.  There are many more young children who I see in school with weak hands, weak core muscles, difficulty motor planning, difficulty regulating emotions and difficulty paying attention.  

In school (and at home!), there is so much pressure for teachers, parents and students to fit in ALL. THE. THINGS.  I have had teachers tell me they can’t find the time to even do indoor movement breaks since their schedule is so packed.  Parents may be working outside of the home while trying to juggle therapy appointments, after school activities, managing the house and just life in general.  There can be so many barriers to incorporating outdoor time and play in a school setting – limited time, resources, space, poor weather conditions, supervision, safety concerns, etc. Many of these barriers can also impact the home environment too.

While there can be many barriers, there are also so many benefits to outdoor play.  Here are 10 reasons why I think all kids need to play or spend time outside everyday (yes, even in the cold weather).   

1. Outdoor play promotes health

Being outdoors increases a child’s exposure to Vitamin D, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones.  Additionally, being outdoors reduces the spread of viruses and infection and can boost a child’s immune system.  So yes, we should be going outside even (especially!) in the winter.  

2. Outdoor play promotes development of the senses

Outdoor play is absolutely essential for all students to get the sensory input they need.  Remember, sensory processing is something we all do – and we all need a certain amount and type of input to remain regulated. Outdoor play offers so many opportunities for a variety of sensory input.  

3. Outdoor play promotes movement and exercise 

Encouraging outdoor play can help combat childhood obesity, which is on the rise.  Children who are overweight are at risk for multiple medical and psychological issues. Additionally, more than 40% of children with a disability are at a higher risk for being overweight.  Read more here

4. Outdoor play improves strength and coordination

Being in school is hard.  Kids need to have a strong, solid base of support to help them sit upright, attend and complete various academic tasks.  Outdoor play can help strengthen core muscles (stomach), upper body (shoulder girdle), and hands which can help kids participate better in important daily activities.

5. Outdoor play can help improve motor planning skills

The best way for a child to figure out how to move his/her body effectively is to practice!  I think about my kids learning to walk. They needed to fall, a lot, in order to figure out how to coordinate their bodies to stand up again.  Outdoor play, especially on the playground, gives kids the opportunity to practice these important motor planning skills which can translate to more independence during their daily routines.

6. Outdoor play can help improve attention 

Being outside can help reduce symptoms of ADHD which can lead to better outcomes in school.  Read more here.

7. Outdoor play promotes happiness

Being outside can reduce stress – and everyone seems more stressed these days. Think about how you feel on the first nice day after a long dreary winter.  It feels so blissful to be outdoors, enjoying the fresh air, the sun, the scenery.  The same goes for our kids.  

8. Outdoor play promotes creativity

Outdoor play is the ultimate opportunity for creativity, especially if you are not on a playground.  Engaging with leaves, sticks, rocks, etc requires a child to think and expand his play schemes. There are many opportunities to work together to engage in play schemes or games.  

9. Outdoor play can improve sleep

According to this article, exposure to sunlight in the morning can help set the internal body clock for a better night’s sleep.  Additionally, sunlight can help kids stay more alert during the day which makes it easier to sleep at night.  

10. Being outdoors can allow kids to just ‘be kids’

In this day and age, I feel like it is very easy to get stressed and overwhelmed and find ways to worry about everything when it comes to our children.  There is something so innocent and pure about being and playing outside. Watching kids run in an open field, climb a tree, dig in the dirt, play with sticks – there is so much joy to be found in these seemingly simplistic activities, especially in our busy, highly structured culture.  

Outdoor play and Autism

There are aspects of outdoor play that may be challenging for students on the autism spectrum.  Large, open outdoor spaces can pose safety concerns, especially for students who may like to run.  A lot of outdoor play is spontaneous and unstructured; additionally, the sensory experiences of the outdoors can sometimes be overwhelming. 

However, this article specifically investigated outdoor play for children on the autism spectrum.  Overall, the researchers concluded that while students on the autism spectrum did experience challenges in their play especially related to social interactions, the outdoor environment provided a unique opportunity to address and explore them.  They concluded that outdoor play is important, necessary and valuable for children on the autism spectrum – especially when combined with opportunities for inclusion with peers.   

I hope I have inspired you to continue to think of ways to incorporate outdoor play into your routine.  There are so many benefits for all of us.  I know there can be many barriers, but it doesn’t have to be complicated – even something as simple as a short walk outside or an outdoor picnic can be so helpful. Share your thoughts or ideas in the comment section – I’d love to hear them.  Happy playing!  

Resources and References:

American Academy of Pediatrics: Position Statement on Play 

Environmental Health Perspectives: Benefits of Sunlight

Green Time for Sleep Time

Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body and Spirit through Outdoor Play

Exploration of the Outdoor Play Experiences of Preschool Children with ASD

*This post is for informational purposes only.  The information provided is general in nature. Please contact your occupational therapist for specific questions regarding your child/student.

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