Take me outside: Why outdoor play for kids matters

There are tremendous benefits to outdoor play for kids. Take your kids outside!

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Children learn both indoors and outdoors, but parents are often fearful of outdoor play for kids at a young age. After all, a baby crawling across the grass may put things in his mouth, or a pre-schooler running around the playground could fall down and scrape his knee.

Parents get worried about their children getting dirty and wet. However, all of these experiences are crucial for children's cognitive and physical development.

Here are some of the reasons why outdoor play for kids is important:

1. Gross motor development

A child can play outdoors from the moment they are mobile. It gives them the space to develop their gross motor skills naturally as they learn to crawl, walk, run, jump, bounce and climb!

2. Exploration, observation and investigation

As young children explore, they are building blocks of knowledge in their brain. Toddlers love investigating – why do the birds fly away as I approach? Why is the cat licking her paws?

They also observe things in minute details, they may stay and watch a butterfly quietly as it lands on a flower, being still, knowing that movement may frighten it and cause it to fly away. They will look at its wings and observe the myriad of colours and the beauty of the patterns on its wing. And then, as toddlers have little self-control, they may jump up at it, causing it to fly away.

3. Risk-taking builds resilience

Children fall over, get up and the cycle repeats itself. The resilience is built as they take risks, learning by trial and error. A four-year-old girl may realise that she actually doesn’t like being pushed so high on the swing. Another child may come to a conclusion that he shouldn’t have climbed so high. They understand their strengths and weaknesses as they navigate the natural environment and the playgrounds. With little ones, remember to always supervise closely.

4. Unstructured play

Children need unstructured play! In fact, recent research suggests that children need to be engaged in twice as much unstructured play compared to structured play. Play is unstructured when children have very few rules and the freedom to play – where they can climb trees, race each other, make up their own games, where their play isn’t interrupted by adults.

The benefits of unstructured play are tremendous – it helps them to develop executive function skills and it enhances their focus over time. They also engage in creative and imaginative play, try out and test different ideas, solve problems, regulate each other’s behaviour in a social setting and they learn how to play and get along with other children (without our input, unless safety is an issue). All of these are essential life skills.

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5. Diversity in socialisation

As a parent, one of the benefits I see from allowing my child to play with other children at the playground is the ability for them to socialise (and resolve conflicts) with children from different backgrounds and outside of their usual social circles. After all, for the most part, we cannot choose who our school mates and colleagues will be. Plus I get to speak Chinese at the playground too!

6. Prevention of myopia

There is strong evidence which suggests that children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to become myopic, and hence, shortsighted. Myopia is an eye condition that poses significant costs for optical correction as one needs to purchase contact lenses and/or spectacles, but also because it is associated with cataract and glaucoma in the longer term.

7. Getting dirty is good

Here’s a dirty little secret, getting dirty is actually good for your child’s physical health as it improves their immunity. Research shows that the benefits also relate to the emotional wellbeing of the child. Their “happy hormone”, i.e. seratonin increases when they are exposed to soil. Their stress levels are also significantly reduced when in green spaces.

Practical tips on making the most of outdoor play for kids in Singapore

  • Go for a short early morning walk with your child after they get up. It’s a good time for both of you to connect if you work and they go to school.
  • Devote a specific time of the day when your child gets unstructured outdoor play, for example, between 5 – 7 pm, while it is not yet dark and when there will be plenty of children outside to play with. Research indicates that spending at least two hours outdoors every day can help prevent myopia in children.
  • Check out a few spots around your neighbourhood which are well suited for outdoor play – a park, a local playground, the field. Let your child take the lead in choosing where they want to play.
  • Make friends with the other caregivers and children in your neighbourhood. Talk to them, be open and bring down a ball or another toy which can engage other children too. Before you know it, there will be a group of you meeting daily for some outdoors play.
  • Make the outdoors fun, something which the whole family can do together. Take trips on the weekends and public holidays to the surrounding islands, the beach, to the nature reserve and to the water parks.
  • Bring the outdoors inside! Collect rocks, shells, twigs and flowers. This will allow your children to enjoy the nature in the comfort of their own home.

This article was written by Shumei Winstanley, Co-Founder, Chapter Zero Singapore