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Take it outside! The incredible importance of outdoor play

Enough with the iPad! Give up the Game Boy! Turn that TV off, go outside and play! Of course, “When we were young…” we would be out there on bicycles, running after balls, rollicking on roller-skates or climbing up trees. The fact is though, we were out there being physically active – much more so than the current generation. With the invention of iPads, mobile devices and digital games, combined with a social change in mindset regarding children’s safety issues, many children are left to sit inside for longer and don’t experience the joys, health benefits and character building delights of outdoor play.

Physical fitness and outdoor play are vital for the health and well-being of children, and with a marked decline in both it’s time to get kids up and outdoors.

General benefits of outdoor activity
Obesity in children in Australia is still exceedingly high and has almost doubled in the last generation. Encouraging children to play outdoors can have a big impact on alleviating this problem. When children play outside, it is natural for them to chase, run, jump, swim, climb, dance and do whatever else their imaginations and environments enable them to do. Physically, these activities provide them with strength training along with aerobic exercise. Outdoor exercise also strengthens their immunity and exposes them to the sun, giving them a vital dose of healthy Vitamin D.

The Australian Department of Health recommends that toddlers and preschool children (aged between 1 and under 5 years) should be physically active for at least three hours a day, spread throughout the day. For older children (aged between 5 and 12), the suggested amount is at least one hour of moderate to vigorous exercise a day. This might sound like a lot, but when you consider all the opportunities there are for play in a child’s day, this really isn’t hard to achieve.

Mental health
Anxiety and depression issues, attention deficit disorders and behavioural issues are on the rise. This is partly because children are busier than ever before with school, homework, and a large amount of extra-curricular activities. There is little time left for unstructured, mind easing outdoor play. Combined with exercising less, this does nothing to alleviate children’s stress levels. According to The Children & Nature Network, contact with nature can reduce the level of stress, as well as have a positive impact on the development of conditions such as ADHD and anxiety.

Intellectual development
A child who exercises outdoors benefits from extra intellectual stimulation as outdoor play encourages exploration, risk assessment, and allows freedom of thought and movement. This in turn leads to improved focus and learning outcomes in the classroom. Unstructured play also promotes creativity and development of problem solving skills. With a more flexible mind children are able to see things in a different way.

Social skills
Playing outdoors gives children new opportunities to work in groups and learn important skills such as negotiation, sharing and resolving conflicts. Exploring through play is also a great way to learn to overcome obstacles, which helps a child with self-esteem and resilience. All of these skills are beneficial for developing relationships, communication skills and even leadership qualities.

Physical benefits
Allowing a child to run around outdoors helps them to “let off steam”, burning excess energy. This will not only help prevent obesity, but will mentally relax and recharge them for further creative or learning activities later in the day.

By playing outdoors children will become more inventive, finding any number of ways to entertain themselves. It is also good for their physical confidence and develops their ‘risk assessment’ skills. They become a little more “hardy” by outdoor play and are more willing to try new things. In a way it’s the perfect antidote for timidity and shyness.

Stranger danger vs overprotective: a balancing act
Importance of Playing Outdoors for KidsOver the last few decades, parents have become increasingly strict with children in relation to outdoor activities. Sadly, the sight of children playing happily and safely on the streets is now uncommon. Some argue that this strictness has led to an overprotective approach, while others insist vehemently that it is necessary. A balanced approach would perhaps be to educate children on the importance of road safety and to give them an understanding of “stranger danger”, yet still encourage outdoor activity and adventure. Children can be supervised, play in safe areas, and “buddy up” with a friend when venturing outdoors. These strategies are easily implemented, if thought and planning goes into creating opportunities for outdoor play.

Choice of language should be considered as well when speaking with children about safety outdoors. Instead of telling children to “be careful”, “watch out for…” or “don’t…”, try telling them to “be aware” and “be sure you think about…” The first approach instils fear, while the second speaks of confidence, self-reliance and thinking ahead.

Let’s not deprive our kids of outdoor play. Doing so would block learning and development in so many ways, not to mention the sheer joy of just being outdoors and enjoying nature. In the words of Dr Seuss:

“…Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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