By: Laura Van Zandt, OTR/L
While visiting my family recently, I was reminded of the importance of outdoor play. I was lucky to grow up with a two-acre yard and large untamed wood behind my house. It granted me endless hours of exploring and freedom. Now, children have highly-scheduled lives and don’t have the opportunity to play outside as often. Safety is another legitimate concern for families reluctant to allow their children unsupervised play time outside.
But the whole family can benefit from play time outside. The benefits for children include:
Gross Motor Skills: The outdoors is one of the very best places for children to practice and master emerging physical skills. Children can freely experience gross motor skills like running, skipping, and jumping. It is also an appropriate area for the practice of ball-handling skills such as throwing and catching. There are also tons of opportunities for strengthening and coordination through sensoriomotor and heavy work activities such as sitting on a swing, pushing a swing, pulling a wagon, and lifting/carrying objects.
Fine Motor Skills: When children are playing outside they are constantly using their hands to pick up and hold an endless number of items. Each time they pick up something new, they must form their hand around a variety of different shapes. In turn, they learn to separate the two sides of their hands as well as learn how to develop grasp patterns.
Sensory Processing Skills: The outdoors are full of boundless sensory processing opportunities. Each of our seven different senses (vision, auditory, tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), vestibular (balance), and proprioception (body’s ability to sense itself) are constantly given a vast array of opportunities.
Just close your eyes and listen to all the different sounds. Can you identify the different birds? Open your eyes and now look. Can you find the bird that made that sound? Sit down and feel the grass on your skin. Talk a walk down to a neighborhood garden and smell the different flowers. Which one is your favorite? Can you find the fresh vegetables and fruits? How do they taste? Bend down and simulate your vestibular sense as you pick the different vegetables and fruits. Put them in your wagon and give your proprioceptive system a workout as you pull it up the hill.
Cognitive and Social Skills: Without all the bells and whistles of electronics, children are more likely to invent games as they learn how they can interact within the outside world. Who can jump the furthest over the stick? Who can run the fastest to the biggest tree? Where can I find the best hiding spot for hide-and-seek? Inventing games offers children the possibility to test boundaries and invent rules. In the process, children learn why rules are therefore necessary. They also learn the fine art of flexibility, and give and take with others. Children learn how to work together for a common goal and how to problem solve and use materials in new ways. They can also learn how to take turns and wait while playing on the playground.
Health: Playing outside is also a natural way to relieve stress. Sunlight provides vitamin D, which helps prevent bone problems, heart disease, and diabetes. Our vision is also known to be helped by playing outside (Optometry and Vision Science, 2009 January). Believe it or not, playing in the dirt also helps boost the immune system and handling bugs can help with auto-immune diseases.
Studies show that as many as half of American children are not getting enough exercise, and that risk factors like hypertension and arteriosclerosis are showing up at age 5. So simply going for a walk can greatly help children. Studies have also suggested that playing outside may help to reduce the signs and symptoms of ADHD in children by reducing attention deficit symptoms (American Journal of Public Health, 2004 September).
Activities by Age for the Great Outdoors
- Lay a blanket down and have tummy time outside
- Introduce grass, leaves, and sand in their hands as they exercise fine motor skills of touching and holding
- Face the infant toward children at play to stimulate their eyes
- Place the infant in a safely secured swing
- Push an infant in a stroller around the neighborhood or park
- Blowing bubbles and trying to catch
- Peek-a-boo around trees, bushes, and playground equipment
- Explore in a sandbox
- Encourage exploration on small playground equipment
- Water play with cups and plastic containers
- Push and pull equipment
- Create a garden or plant some flowers
- Go on a nature hike with a scavenger list of items to find
- Use sidewalk chalk to create pictures
- Collect twigs, branches, and sticks
- Collect pinecones for making nut butter bird feeders
- Fly a kite
- Allow free time/ independent play
- Running outside
- Kick a ball
- Jump rope
- Go on hike
- Plant and maintain a garden
- Ride a bike
- Build forts outdoors
Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley’s therapy is modeled on play. If you have concerns about your child’s development or want an evaluation, visit www.eastersealsdfvr.org for more information.