The benefits of outdoor play for children of all ages are well documented, with outdoor environments offering unique opportunities for children to engage in play based learning and sensory experiences.
Outdoor play allows children of all ages to explore, discover and appreciate the natural world, and to be active, strengthening both fine and gross motor skills. When children play outside they can test their physical limits in ways which are more challenging indoors, and engage in “messy” experiences.
By planning experiences in the outdoor environment, educators can help children to access a range of benefits, as well as meeting their obligations under Quality Area 3 – Outdoor and indoor spaces are organised and adapted to support every child’s participation and to engage every child in quality experiences in both built and natural environments.
When children run, jump, skip, hop, climb and roll outside, they are developing their gross motor muscles, balance and coordination. Playing in a sun safe way outdoors helps children to gain access to vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones, and to help fight disease. Spending time with the sun “warming your bones” can boost emotional well being also.
Some studies have shown that children playing in dirt can expose them to allergens and bacteria which can help to build immunity, with emerging research showing that such exposures under the age of one year can help to prevent allergies from developing.
When children play outside, they learn more about how to manage risk. Being able to use loose parts and have self direction over their learning allows children to approach risk and make decisions about how to play safely and practice setting challenges, becoming aware of their limits and pushing their abilities at their own pace.
When children are able to experiment with how high they can climb, how fast they can run, how far they can go, they will make mistakes, but they will also learn more about their bodies, and grow in confidence, lessening the chance that they will take big risks when they have more freedom later in their lives.
Space to be
Children’s wellbeing can be enhanced by having time in green spaces. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku – bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through the five senses – is known to bring a sense of comfort, ease stress and worry, and help in clarifying thoughts.
When children spend time in nature, it can support them to experience the same benefits, and offer time and space which is governed by the rhythms of nature, which can be very soothing.
No such thing as bad weather
All too often, children will be prevented from playing outside because it is too hot or too cold. When educators instead work with children to “be prepared” with hats, warm clothes, access to water play, raincoats and boots, there’s no such thing as “bad weather”.
A number of ECEC services offer indoor/outdoor programs, where children are free to choose where they play, or place a focus on making natural materials available. Some services go a step further, offering children time, space and freedom to explore the natural environment through programs such as bush or beach kinder.
Regardless of how the outdoor program is made available, there are lots of benefits for children learning and exploring the natural world. More ideas about how to do this are available in the “further resources” section below.