Written by: Emily (Emma) Edgren
Gabriela Bento and Gisela Dias (2017) researched the importance of outdoor play for young children’s healthy development. They found that there are many benefits to cognitive and physical development that come from outdoor play. The influence of time and space in play experiences in a child’s daily routines fulfills the needs that most children who spend the majority of their time inside aren’t getting.
Contact with the outdoor environment offers a wide variety of unique experiences to capture children’s attention and interest. With the use of items such as sticks, rocks, flowers, dirt, water, and leaves, children can expand their curiosity and their drive to learn. These materials are more meaningful than the limited options commercial toys offer. These are open-ended material that evoke the use of children’s imaginations. Through outdoor play there is a sense of discovery and adventure. Their exploration is driven by fascination and this is where meaningful learning happens while creating a connection with their environment. This is unlike a traditional classroom setting. When children engage in outdoor play, their bodies become their learning tool (Bento & Dias, 2017).
There is an important factor when it comes to risk. Adults can become overwhelmed and consumed with the worry that something bad will happen to their child when they are outside. This is a n0-brainer; parents want the absolute best for their children. The piece of information that they are missing is how important the concept of risk is to the development of their child. The outdoor environment opens the door, wide open for special opportunities; opportunities for children to exceed their personal limits. These are moments of exploration, climbing, jumping, or using a new tool. This type of play, though risky, promotes the learning of important skills; skills like, persistence, entrepreneurship, self-knowledge, and problem-solving (Bento & Dias, 2017). Even more importantly children will experience moments of failure and success in the outdoor environment.
The type of socialization that happens out in nature is different too. The types of connections between children and adults (or peers) is different compared to a classroom setting. Adults are able to gain a deeper understanding of children through organic observation. The open and unpredictable environment that the outdoors provides for the children, allows for a more meaningful connection between children. Children become the teachers and learners in the outdoor setting. In order to accomplish tasks, children will work together on a joint goal and combine their skills to accomplish different tasks (Bento & Dias, 2017). The outdoor environment also creates an environment where children can choose whether or not they want to participate in play with a group of peers or go off on their own and explore. The space is more open and children won’t be in such a confined space where children run into each other often in the classroom. Not to mention a big win of playing outside strengthens children’s immune systems! Who doesn’t want a stronger immune system?
The first goal for cognitive development based on the book The Creative Curriculum for Preschool by Diane Dodge, Laura Colker, and Cate Heroman (2008) is learning and problem solving. This is when a child is purposeful about getting information and using the information that they have gathered. This happens through observing events around them, asking questions, making predictions, and testing possible solutions (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2008). This goal can be easily met through outdoor play. Through outdoor play children are gathering so much information about their surroundings while making judgements and predictions on the world around them. They are observing what events happen in nature and asking questions to further their cognitive skills.
The next cognitive goal is thinking logically: Gathering and making sense of information by comparing, contrasting, sorting, classifying, counting, and recognizing patterns (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman. 2008). This goal is another one of the goals that can be easily met and worked on through outdoor play. Children are exploring and gathering up items that they find outside. This can allow for a learning opportunity to take a look at the objects and compare the objects by classifying them, sorting them, and recognizing patterns if there are any. Maybe children even begin to compare and contrast which stick is the biggest, or which rock is the heaviest. Either way children are expanding the way they think and gaining new skills through this outdoor play.
The last goal for cognitive development is representing and thinking symbolically. This happens when children use objects in unique ways and portray the world through charts or pictures. This allows children to really use their imaginations and explore abstract ideas (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2008). As mentioned above, objects and items that can be found in the outdoor environment are open-ended materials. Open ended materials are materials that can be used for anything and everything. This is where a child can really expand their imagination and creativity. They can also use these objects in new and unique ways while gaining a new perspective on the world around them.
For physical development there are two goals: Fine motor skill development and gross motor skill development. For achieving gross motor control children need to move their large muscles in the body, especially the arms and legs consciously and deliberately. Gross motor control also involves balance, stability, running, jumping, hopping, galloping, and skipping. Other skills include throwing, kicking, and catching as well (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2008). There is no doubt that the development of these skills can be supported through outdoor play. Jumping from rock to rock, climbing trees, running around with your friends, and balancing on top of rocks. Throwing a ball to your friend. Lifting up a rock to look for a bug. These are all gross motor developing activities that take place in an outdoor setting. The outdoor setting is very important to the gross motor development of a child.
Fine motor skills are achieved by using and coordinating the small muscles in the hands and wrists with dexterity. The development of these small muscles helps with the ability to perform self help skills and their abilities to manipulate small objects and tools (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2008). This can be done through play outdoors. By working on zipping a jacket to go outside and tying their shoes. Using small tools to do garden work like a hand shovel. Even using the small muscles in their hands to pick up a tiny bug that they found will work on their fine motor skills.
THE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
For this week’s activity we are going to focus on outdoor play. Keep it simple families. Take a walk around the neighborhood, the park, or your backyard. Let your child’s creativity and interests lead the way through their exploration of the outdoors. Along the way collect items that spark the interest of the child and that they are interested in exploring further. Once the walk is complete, work on some cognitive skills through comparing items, contrasting items, and sorting your items that you found. In addition, work on language development through asking open-ended questions that allow your child to describe what they see, what they feel, and why they picked it up. The question possibilities are endless and will only take their learning to the next level.
Now go get outside and have fun!!
Bento, G. & Dias, G. (2017). The importance of outdoor play for young children’s healthy development. Porto Biomedical Journal, 2(5), 157 – 160. doi: 10.1016/j.pbj.2017.03.003
Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2008). The creative curriculum for preschool. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies.