Historically, learning outside a classroom is how most people learned world-wide. It is odd that we have come to ‘do learning’ in special buildings between certain hours with regular breaks from ‘learning’ called playtime and holidays, when, in fact, much of our learning continues to happen during those ’breaks’. Of course, what we learn in these different places may be varied.
Play, especially in the outdoors, has been an essential part of childhood for generations. If I think back to my own childhood, it is full of wonderful memories exploring outside. However, in today’s fast-paced world, where urbanisation, technology, and ever-busier lifestyles dominate, children’s play habits have undergone a significant transformation.
With the rise of urban living, dual-working parents, and the allure of digital screens, outdoor activities have been steadily declining.
Sadly, children are spending less time playing outdoors, and particularly in natural environments, than in previous generations, despite the fact that outdoor play has a range of developmental benefits.It is vital for us as teachers, parents and childcare and early learning providers to not only recognise these benefits that outdoor play brings to a child’s learning, development and wellbeing but to promote and encourage time engaging in paly outside.
Research shows that the outdoors is where young minds embrace curiosity, creativity, and exploration. Research also indicates that learning outdoors addresses many broad aims for children’s education, development and wellbeing.
Before we begin to explore the many benefits of outdoor play, one thing we must be sure of, before stepping foot outside is that our children are sun safe!
Excessive exposure to the sun’s Ultra Violet (UV) radiation can cause sunburn, skin and eye damage and skin cancer. Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to UV damage, especially in Australia with the highest UV rating, and the highest skin cancer rates in the world. UV radiation damage accumulated during early childhood increases the risk of skin cancer later in life. It’s critical for your child’s health to choose a childcare and early childhood centres with a well-researched and comprehensive sun protection policy.
It is essential for us as parents and educators to model good sunsafe practices and ensure our children are properly protected during outdoor activities to mitigate risks from sun exposure. Our sunsafe policy includes a hat, sensible clothing, sunscreen, shaded play areas and, when possible, sun glasses.
Now we have been reminded of sun safety, let’s explore the compelling reasons why getting outdoors is crucial for your child’s development, regardless of the season or setting.
Outdoor play, whether in summer or winter, developed spaces or natural environments, stimulates cognitive development. It presents unique opportunities for problem-solving, creativity, decision-making, and risk-taking. For example, when children independently explore ways to dry the playground or keep themselves dry after rainfall, they are engaging in problem-solving, communication and teamwork. (Cognitive Development)
Simultaneously, this experience may also encourage positive learning dispositions, such as motivation, involvement, and endurance. It offers children opportunities to take risks, overcome challenges, and develop confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. The ever-changing environment and flexible materials in both developed and natural settings encourage children to engage in imaginative play. Whether they’re exploring forests, building sandcastles on the beach, or inventing games in the local park, outdoor play fuels their creativity and imagination. These attributes are closely linked to enhanced resilience, preparing children to face life’s challenges with confidence. (Positive Learning Dispositions)
We also see this when a child persistently attempts to climb a challenging rock in a natural environment or an obstacle in our playground, we observe as they develop a sense of determination and mastery. This determination and mastery is not only synonymous with cognitive development but also with physical activity and overall physical development.
Just as physical development requires repetitive practice, so does children’s risky play. Risky play enables them to increasingly identify, assess and manage risks, ultimately developing crucial skillas in risk analysis, management and prevention. In outdoor settings, they encounter situations that demand judgment and decision-making, empowering them to make calculated choices, be aware of their surroundings, and become adept at minimising accidents. (Risk Management)
Risk management can be further enhanced in the summer months as we gradually transfer the responsibility for sun safety to children. Encouraging (and supervising) children to choose appropriate clothing, wear their hats, put on their own sunscreen and reminding them to stay hydrated are just a few of the ways we can support children to mitigate risks and manage their own sun safety, developing healthy habits for the future. (Health and wellbeing)
As we continue to explore the link between wellbeing and the great outdoors, research reminds us that time in nature has a remarkable ability to restore positive emotions and enhance emotional well-being. It reduces stress and anxiety, while promoting happiness, and self-regulation. Whether in developed spaces or natural environments, outdoor play fosters a sense of freedom and playfulness that is essential for emotional development. (Emotional wellbeing)
That same freedom and playfulness also nurtures personal and social skills. Children who have access to the outdoors exhibit greater prosocial behaviours, including teamwork, turn-taking, leadership, and conflict resolution. Natural play spaces, with less structure, encourage cooperative and complex play, fostering diverse social bonds. When children collaborate with open-ended and natural resources, they learn the value of teamwork and negotiation. Developing skills such as self-awareness, and resilience, as well as friendships. (Social wellbeing)
Through their social interactions in the outdoors, children have greater opportunity to develop language and communication skills. The absence of background noise and the use of diverse play materials improve descriptive language, listening skills, and metacommunication. (Language skills)
As they become attuned to their surroundings, children develop connections with nature and develop a deep appreciation for the environment, instilling a sense of responsibility for its preservation. This connection to nature can lead to environmentally conscious choices in adulthood, contributing to a sustainable future. (Sustainability)
In a world dominated by screens and schedules, outdoor activities remains an essential part of childhood. Whether your child engages in play in developed outdoor spaces or explores the untamed beauty of natural environments, the benefits are undeniable. From cognitive and physical development to social and emotional well-being, outdoor play nourishes every aspect of a child’s growth, and it’s critical to choose a childcare and early learning centres that provides your child with these opportunities.