Amazing Outdoor Play: Six More Powerful Reasons To Play Outside

Boy Looking At Tree
Time spent outside, even on cloudy days, can protect against nearsightedness.

We all know that outdoor play is good for children.  It encourages them to be active, which aids motor development and can help prevent future obesity.  Fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for everyone’s mood and help reduce stress.  Safe sun exposure (more on that in a later post) helps make vitamin D.  And the list goes on.  But sometimes, getting outside can be a challenge.  We all have days where we need additional motivation.  Below I’ll talk about six lesser known but equally important reasons to get your munchkins outside, even when you’re not feeling it.

THE OUTDOOR PLAY SCOUTING REPORT

In short, outdoor play is absolutely crucial for proper child development, both physically and emotionally.  The six reasons below are drawn from articles and studies, with links for additional information.

1) It’s important for their vision

According to this article by the Sierra Club, which draws on several scientific studies on the matter, “not spending sufficient time in sunlight” is a cause of myopia (nearsightedness).  Genetics is also a likely factor, but one doctor cited in the article indicates that time outdoors can even override genetic predisposition.  He and his colleagues found that “children who are genetically predisposed to nearsightedness are three times less likely to need glasses if they spend at least 14 hours a week outdoors, compared to children who spend less than five hours a week outdoors.”

Intense studying or lots of time reading have been cited in the past as reasons behind the development of myopia.  This article suggests that it’s not the reading or studying itself but the reduction of time in natural sunlight that’s the culprit.   Reading outside, for example, still helps reduce myopia risk. This additional study provides more details.

2) Outdoor play stimulates brain development

A second factor is the nature (ahem!) of outdoor play.  According to this article by Portland Lifestyle and Family, outdoor play stimulates creativity and the imagination because it is open-ended, unstructured, and limitless.

Baby examining grass
Even babies benefit from time spent exploring the outdoors.

Outdoors, children must come up with their own games and rules.  Outdoor time also encourages cooperative play in a way that indoor play does not.  Children must cooperate with others to create the games they play, and clarify any details.  They quite literally create the world around them during time spent playing outside.   Outdoor play also promotes problem solving, leadership skills, communication skills and listening skills.  Finally, outdoor play is multi-sensory in a way that indoor play typically is not.

According to this fantastic study by the University of Missouri-Kansas City, even babies as young as two months need outdoor time to help stimulate neural pathways.  As the authors state, “learning by doing, creates more neural networks in the brain and throughout the body, making the entire body a tool for learning.” If these neural pathways are not stimulate, they disappear over time.

3) It helps improve vocabulary

According to the UMKC study, “when children are given the opportunity to physically demonstrate action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither, or descriptive words such as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous, word comprehension is immediate and long lasting. The words are used and learned in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters. This is what promotes emergent literacy and a love of language.”  Enough said.

4) It can lessen ADHD

According to this New York Times article, the number of children with ADHD continues to increase.  At the same time, schools continue to cut recess and outside time.  The author connects the two, showing that today’s kids are “fidgety” and have short attention spans precisely because they need to move.  Their lack of movement has come to the point where their core strength and balance may be compromised.  Not surprisingly, a number of studies indicate that more outdoor time is beneficial to children, increasing their attention spans as well as their overall wellness.  According to this article by Psychology Today, which reviews seven studies on the topic, more green time ” improves concentration, impulse control and hyperactivity in children.”

5) Playing in dirt helps promote good gut flora and reduces the incidence of autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma

The Wellness Mama, in this thorough review of a number of related articles, points out that our overly hygienic environment, while positive in some ways (reducing disease) may be hurting the development of our immune system.  She cites a New York Times article, for example, that discusses how babies — with their tendency to put everything in their mouthes — may be displaying an evolutionary response that allows the immune system to “practice.” Babies are even able to absorb iron from soil (and should be encouraged to do so!).

Gardening shovel in dirt
Gardening and playing in dirt can improve gut flora.

Wellness Mama discusses various aspects of this phenomenon, including the increased incidence of autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma as our homes become more and more sterile.  She cites the decreased incidence of allergies in Amish and “farm” children, as well as the importance of soil-based organisms for gut bacteria.

6) Outdoor play helps children develop healthy risk assessment skills

Risky outdoor play involves an element of danger, such as height, speed, or a physical element such as water.

According to this article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public health, a systematic review of 21 relevant papers found “overall positive effects of risky outdoor play on a variety of health indicators and behaviours, most commonly physical activity, but also social health and behaviours, injuries, and aggression.”

The key in these studies is that they look at “risky” play.   That is, play where there is some element of danger that the children must recognize and evaluate.  Their ability to do this allows them to learn risk management.  It also has a positive impact on motor skill development as well as social and mental health.  Finally, risk assessment skills have been connected to “the ability to negotiate decisions about substance use, relationships and sexual behaviour during adolescence.

INSPIRED TO GO PLAY OUTSIDE?

Go!  While these studies indicate that the more natural, risky, dirty, and active the play, the better, any time outside moving helps!  If it feels like a chore, check out my guest post on the 365Outside blog.  I provide some lessons learned from our first year striving to go outside for at least 20 minutes every day.

What’s your favorite outdoor activity with your kids? Post in the comments!

SOURCES

“The Importance of Outdoor Play and Its Impact on Brain Development In Children,” University of Missouri-Kansas City –http://education.umkc.edu/download/berkley/The-Importance-of-Outdoor-Play-and-Its-Impact-on-Brain-Develpoment-in-Children.pdf

“Nature’s RX:  Green Time’s Effects on ADHD,” Psychology Today —
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201306/natures-rx-green-times-effects-adhd

“Babies Know:  A Little Dirt is Good For You,” New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/health/27brod.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1426907280-1gdxnMvnA3pCD5Qul+96sw

“Why Kids Need Dirt to Be Healthy,” Wellness Mama — https://wellnessmama.com/12908/kids-need-dirt/

“Why Playing Outdoors Makes Children Smarter,” Portland Lifestyle and Family — http://www.portlandfamily.com/posts/20-reasons-why-playing-outdoors-makes-children-smarter/

“A New Reason to Get Out Into the Sunshine,” Sierra Club — http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/green-life/new-reason-get-out-sunshine

What’s Hot in Myopia ResearchThe 12th International Myopia Conference, Australia, July 2008 — http://journals.lww.com/optvissci/Fulltext/2009/01000/What_s_Hot_in_Myopia_Research_The_12th.2.aspx

“Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today,” Washington Post — https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/07/08/why-so-many-kids-cant-sit-still-in-school-today/?utm_term=.76c1abc913c2

“What is the Relationship between Risky Outdoor Play and Health in Children? A Systematic Review,” — https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4483710/

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2 Replies to “Amazing Outdoor Play: Six More Powerful Reasons To Play Outside”

  1. Excellent article and I love the relevant sources that share the science about how outdoor play physicallybenefits our children beyond just building strong muscles.

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