Kids of all ages learn through play. While outdoor play may look different at various life stages, children of all ages need it to develop properly and thrive.
Practitioners in this setting actively encouraged children to access the outdoors, whatever the weather. This enabled valuable learning to take place.
For children, physical activity is an essential part of their well-being. It builds their muscle strength, helps them maintain a healthy weight and allows them to recover from illness more effectively. Playing outdoors enables them to run around, climb and balance, and explore their environment. In addition, the fresh air and vitamin D they get from being outdoors is beneficial for their mental health.
Having access to outdoor spaces that allow for self-initiated engagement with the environment is crucial for children’s learning. However, the outdoor environment and available resources vary according to climatic conditions. Early childhood practitioners often choose to stay indoors when it is too cold or rainy. The decision is based on the perception that children don’t want to go out or that they won’t play effectively outside.
Rather than keeping children indoors, practitioners can encourage them to play outdoors in all weather conditions by providing the right type of clothing. This can include gumboots and raincoats for children to wear. In addition, they can help children look for puddles to jump in and enjoy their surroundings. Whether it is on the beach, in a garden or at a park, the natural world offers endless opportunities for exploration and fun. Even a snowy walk with a torch is an enriching experience for children. This type of ‘risky play’ may result in some tears and scrapes, but it is an important part of a child’s development as it teaches them to bounce back from setbacks.
Kids who spend a lot of time playing outdoors are more socially aware and less likely to be daunted by new situations or challenges. They know the importance of protecting natural spaces and are more likely to become passionate advocates for preserving them in the future.
Kids play with other kids, their families and friends in a wide range of outdoor environments. These social interactions provide opportunities for kids to practice their conflict resolution skills, negotiate and cooperate. This type of play also helps kids learn to understand the perspectives of others, which is a key aspect of healthy interpersonal relationships.
When children are in open settings, they have the opportunity to make their own decisions without having to compete with other kids for parental attention. The space outside gives kids the freedom to experiment with new games and explore their surroundings, which teaches them to seek success, learn from failure and develop self-reflection.
High quality outdoor spaces offer kids the chance to interact with their environment through the use of different resources, known as loose parts, that can be easily adapted and modified for new play. This is particularly important for cognitive learning. For example, tyres, rocks and crates can be used to create obstacles or challenge physical skills during outdoor play. In addition to enhancing children’s sensory engagement, outdoor play with these elements provides them with an opportunity to assess risk and determine how to adapt their play in challenging conditions, such as slippery surfaces, colder temperatures or windy days.
Imaginative play allows kids to build creativity and social skills. When children are given the time and space to use their imaginations, they can create a world of fun with just a few natural environmental elements such as a hill to roll down or a tree to climb. A combination of the natural environment with moveable resources or ‘loose parts’ provides an even greater series of learning opportunities. Waters and Maynard (2010) found that the self-initiated engagement of children with nature through play was highly effective for cognitive learning, particularly if they were provided with the opportunity to modify and adapt loose parts such as tyres and crates in an outdoor setting.
The outdoors provides unique educational opportunities that aren’t available indoors, such as navigating uneven terrain or building large structures in mud or sand. These experiences teach kids how to solve problems as they adapt to their ever-changing outdoor environments. Similarly, the senses are engaged differently in the outdoors as kids can experience a variety of sensory stimuli – from noticing different colours and textures of rocks to watching insects crawl on a bug catcher. They can also try out their motor skills while balancing on walls, stepping in puddles or climbing trees.
Playing outdoors has been shown to increase children’s sense of well-being. It also supports social, cognitive and physical development. When adults make negative comments about the weather or opt to keep children indoors, they can create barriers for outdoor learning. Children learn best when adults value and promote the importance of playing outside in all types of weather conditions.
Educators and families should be encouraged to work together to break down the barriers that prevent outdoor play. If professionals are able to help parents understand the reasons why it is important for their children to go out and play even when it is cold or wet, possible negative reactions from parents can be overcome.
One of the biggest worries about allowing children to play outdoors in winter is that they will catch a cold or get sick from being exposed to germs. In fact, children are much more likely to become ill from being kept in poorly ventilated indoor spaces and being around other people who may be unwell. Outdoor play in the fresh, chilly air can actually boost children’s immune systems and fight off viruses.
It is important for educators to let children know that it is OK to push the play boundaries, run faster or jump higher when they are outside. This ‘risky’ type of play helps children develop the ability to assess their environment and determine what risks are appropriate for them.