What are the benefits of playing outside?

Lots of children’s activities are currently off limits because of restrictions and lockdowns. But playing outside is a free option for keeping children entertained. Outdoor play can help with children’s physical and mental development.

But finding even 15 minutes for children to play outside can benefit them in a range of ways. Think about opportunities in your daily routine for them to spend time outdoors. You could encourage them to play in the garden in the afternoon or in the park at the weekend. You could go on a nature trail or organise a family sports day. Or you could just take a small detour on the way home from school to spend some time at a playing field.

Playing outside: two children jumping in puddles with welly boots on

1. It helps children to exercise and stay fit

  • Playing outside is a great way to encourage children to exercise.
  • Children should aim to do 60 minutes of exercise per day. This includes running, climbing, skipping, jumping or kicking a ball at the park.
  • Exercise helps children to stay fit and maintain a healthy weight. It can build healthy habits for the future which will be beneficial for their whole life.
  • It strengthens muscles and develops their balance and coordination.
  • Exercise is also positive for mental wellbeing. It releases endorphins in our brains which can boost our mood and make us feel happier.

2. It helps physical development

  • Studies have shown that playing outside can develop children’s motor skills.
  • Gross motor skills are our ability to make large movements with our arms, legs, or torso. There are lots of ways to develop gross motor skills outside. For example: running around, walking on uneven surfaces or climbing hills.
  • Fine motor skills are our ability to make smaller movements, often with our hands. Children can develop these skills by grasping small objects. This could be picking up interesting pebbles or holding dandelions.
  • Sunshine is the best source of Vitamin D. Spending even 15 minutes outside can boost Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is important for healthy bones and teeth as it regulates calcium levels in our bodies. It is also important for having a strong immune system.

3. It improves brain development

  • Playing outside can boost children’s language skills. They can build their vocabulary by naming trees, birds, flowers and animals. Ask your child to describe the landscape or find shapes in the clouds.
  • Some children may find they’re happier to talk outside. This might be because they feel less watched or overheard. With fewer people around, they can be more adventurous with their language.
  • Moving through new and different places can improve children’s spatial awareness.
  • Playing outside often means children have to use their imagination and communication skills. They are likely to have fewer toys outdoors and so have to create their own games. This can increase how much children talk to each other.

4. It can boost mental wellbeing

  • There is a sense of freedom which comes with playing outside. Outdoors, there are fewer rules for children. For example, they can run or play with a ball without the risk of breaking things. They might be able to draw on the ground using chalk, which isn’t allowed inside.
  • Playing outdoors, especially in natural environments, can feel like an adventure. Children can explore and build their self-confidence.
  • Sometimes, children might fall and have bumps or scrapes. They might sometimes feel a bit cold or get wet in the rain. This might feel like a negative experience but it will help them build resilience. Children will realise that they can pick themselves up and learn from their mistakes. This will help them develop skills they will need in later life.
  • Some research suggests that playing outside can reduce levels of cortisol. This is a “stress hormone” and having too much can make us feel anxious. Moving your body and being outdoors can help limit how much cortisol you produce.
  • There is evidence that suggests spending time in nature can boost your mood. One study said that people who were more satisfied with life also felt more connected to nature.

5. It can improve sleep quality

  • Spending time in the fresh air is linked to better sleep patterns.
  • Exercise can help to burn off extra energy. Regular bursts of exercise can make it easier for your child to settle when it’s time for bed.
  • Your child will be more physically tired, and this will help them get good quality rest while asleep. It can help them wake up more refreshed and ready to face the day.
  • We all know that we often feel grumpy or down when we’re tired. Better sleep patterns can help improve our emotional wellbeing and build resilience.
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