Converging studies confirm that children’s outdoor play is essential for their healthy development and academic performance. This topic highlights the benefits of outdoor play in early childhood on physical health, mental well-being, and social and cognitive development. It also highlights the need to change the trends so that children can have daily access to outdoor play. The long-term interventions required to reduce parents’ fears require practitioners’ training, policy changes and improved urban planning for safer environments and natural play spaces. That is a huge task that will take many years to implement. However, there are ways that schools can intervene, to support children in attaining their crucial repeated exposure to high quality unstructured outdoor play opportunities, which will support their development and academic performance. This paper discusses why outdoor play is so crucial for child development, why it is declining and how schools can intervene.
A common but under-researched area of social and emotional development in children is understanding the influence of spending time outdoors and how substantial the effects are. For such an essential aspect of childhood, the gaps in research here are somewhat surprising. Not least because, the research that currently exists confirms that there is clear evidence that outdoor time, like outdoor play, or outdoor classrooms, has a significant positive impact on a child’s social and emotional development. These emerging studies come from multiple disciplines using a wide range of methods that all lead to the same notion.
Specifically, studies focusing on; risk-taking, sensory skills, confidence, and anxiety highlight how outdoor play positively influences children’s social and emotional development.
Compliance in children (how well a child follows and carries out instructions from parents, guardians and teachers) are common teacher concerns, and understandably so. When a child is noncompliant at home, it can lead to low confidence and esteem primarily because they will frequently experience life with the label ‘problem child’. A term that likely follows the child to school. Noncompliant children in a classroom can disrupt and sabotage the academic performance of the whole class. But the problem worsens for the noncompliant child. Their experience of the world is hostile and unaccepting of what appears to be the child’s nature. When, in fact, the child did not have the opportunity to develop adequate skills and positive compliance experiences. A noncompliant child’s experiences in early childhood can lead to a lack of confidence and self-assurance that follows them into adulthood through no fault of their own. All they need is the right kind of guidance to help them learn how to comply and understand the rewards that come from doing so.
To further confirm this notion, a study investigating the associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills for preschool children confirms a correlation between higher screen time levels and low levels of outdoor play with poor social skills and noncompliant behaviours 4. Furthermore, poor social skills and noncompliant behaviours usually leads to poor academic performance. Could outdoor play be the solution to this problem? The study referenced above appears to confirm this notion. It highlights how outdoor play facilitates interaction with peers, providing opportunities for children to be socially engaged and physically active, which is impossible to attain through screen time. However, many children engage in significantly more screen time during their recreation time than ever before, which by default reduces the amount of time they spend outdoors. The next logical question is, how do we get children to participate in less screen time so they can spend more time outdoors?
A qualitative study focusing on children who travel to school shows how careful risk-taking develops when a child engages in active travel, like walking or cycling to school. Such risk-taking commonly involves changing routes, meeting up with new children during their journey to school and looking out for, or protecting their friends and siblings. Furthermore, this study found that during their trip to school many participants demonstrated increased levels of responsibility and social engagement – especially when they were looking out for or making decisions with their siblings and peers 1.
Further studies suggest that children experience more challenges and stress-buffering opportunities, leading to better social and cognitive development. 2.3 Having the ability to solve problems, whether successfully or unsuccessfully promotes confidence and resilience. It teaches children how to regulate their emotions during times of great joy and disappointment, allowing them to see that they survive mistakes or challenges whether they win or lose. These experiences develop their stress-buffering abilities which help them throughout life, from childhood into adulthood.
Risk-taking is a necessary and vital experience for all children; it builds social and emotional confidence and encourages self-regulation which carries into the classroom and throughout life. Leading to independent children and adults – it is crucial for a child’s development.
The ebook by EYFS: Sensory Play; Play In The EYFS discusses how sensory play is crucial for a child to achieve healthy brain development 5. When a child actively uses their senses, it builds nerve connections in the brain which, as the child grows, leads to increasingly complex skills like language development, problem-solving skills, social interaction, gross motor skills and executive function. The point to note here is that the child needs to use their senses for them to develop. They have to get their hands and feet dirty and their bodies moving. They need to feel the elements, see, touch, hear, smell and sense what’s going on around them, and have as many sensory experiences they can.
Outdoor sensory play provides the perfect opportunity for the child to activate all of their senses. During this time, the child will also develop, through sensory play, balance, coordination, and body awareness. They will also establish an appreciation and understanding of their senses and how they relate to their experience of life. Through sensory play and their senses, a child develops a critical and robust relationship with the outdoor world, further compounding the advantages to their development and appreciation of life.
Children express themselves and work out their emotions while developing a healthy understanding of relationships when immersed in an activity. Every time a child has a positive experience through these interactions, their confidence improves (Play Scotland). Even if these experiences are painful or confusing, the child develops stress-buffering skills. There is increasing evidence that children exposed to stressful events become less anxious and develop a stronger sense of self-worth.
The report from Play Scotland cites several advantages of outdoor play in all seasons, and ages 6. Their research confirms that outdoor play is essential for a child’s health, development, education and wellbeing.
The connection between outdoor play and social and emotional development in children may be an emerging field of study. The few available studies are already starting to show signs that outdoor experiences that involve risk-taking, and sensory play have a significant impact on a child’s development—resulting in an array of advantages that are crucial to the development of a healthy child and well-balanced adult. Furthermore, sensory play and appropriate risk-taking may lead to the development of compliance in a child further compounding the positive implications of playing outdoors. These experiences promote independence; they encourage confidence and a well-developed sense of self-esteem and self-awareness. They also improve communication skills, and nurture a stronger connection to the environment, leading to a happier and holistic experience of life for the child than they would have if they were not exposed to outdoor play experiences.
The study on sensory play discussed earlier in this paper outlines how outdoor sensory play can build healthy neural networks in children 5. Executive functions in a child lead to the healthy development of problem-solving skills, enhanced memory and concentration, and a sense of self-awareness and strong communication skills. Outdoor sensory play equates to better cognitive development in children, leading to the development of outstanding social and emotional skills that many children lack. Demonstrating how cognitive skills development intertwines with social and emotional development and vice versa to build a healthy, well-balanced child.
Other studies in the field of outdoor play and cognitive development show how a child can develop a range of critical cognitive skills like motor skills, executive function, spatial awareness, and the ability to concentrate.
Strong evidence relating to outdoor play’s impact on motor 7 and visual 8 development highlights how physiological factors a child gains from outdoor play underpins their social and cognitive development.
A child’s motor skills develop holistically through a combination of phases – specifically cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development. However, the paper on young children’s motor skill development in outdoor experiences shows that while most young children develop necessary motor skills: jumping, hopping, running many children do not master these skills until they’re much older 9. Researchers claim that children should have the opportunity to develop these motor skills as early as possible to ‘maximise their potential’. Psychologist Piaget (1952) was a keen advocate for the notion that children develop cognitive abilities through environmental interaction ‘through the coordination and stimulation of brain synapses and body movements.
A pilot study on the impact of outdoor play spaces on nursery children further enforces the theory that outdoor play helps children develop fine motor skills 10. Child participants were encouraged to play in a semi-structured outdoor play area, while researchers observed their behaviours. The study included observations, behaviour mapping and interviews to determine how children benefit from landscape features, both natural and man-made influence children’s physical activity.
The children were monitored to determine how many times they participated in ten activities: walking, running, jumping, climbing, sliding, catching, plucking, hiding, sitting, and socializing. Large flat surfaces like tarmac or a playing field encouraged nine out of ten activities; it did not support plucking, which appeared to be the most challenging motor skill to elicit in this study. Children only participated in plucking in environments featuring animals, butterflies, moss, shrubs and climbing plants. Furthermore, adding a shelter to the outside environment appeared to encourage a significant increase in seven out of ten activities. While climbing seemed to increase the amount of walking children participated in, significantly.
This study confirms that allowing the children to experience the natural and man-made elements of their environment generates the development of social, cognitive, and physical skills. Play in outdoor environments, especially a planted, sheltered environment with the potential for climbing stimulates all aspects of children’s development more readily than indoor environments. This research shows that when young children play outdoors, alone or socially, they develop qualities like spontaneity, playfulness, humour, imagination, curiosity and active skills. These, in turn, build language, cognitive and social skills as well as critical thinking. All of which interconnect to enhance the child’s confidence and self-esteem they also develop behaviours, like compliance, discipline and problem-solving skills. The perfect combination to equip a child with the necessary skills to navigate life.
On the flip side, nonhuman studies find that play deprivation has a negative impact on cortical development. 11
Another promising research area involving outdoor play is how it influences executive functions such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. All of which links to positive social outcomes and better academic performance. 12
Evidence suggests that aerobic exercise attained through play improves executive functions 13 Though it appears that the aerobic exercise a child might get through play is insufficient. Physical activity needs to be diverse and complex to improve executive function in children 14. While aerobic exercise is undoubtedly beneficial, this research also suggests that providing children with a diverse, natural environment that includes shelter and the opportunity to climb and explore is the best way to give the child the best chance for healthy cognitive development.
Pretend play also seems to be promising in the development of executive function.15 Perhaps a combination of diverse and active outdoor play and pretend play is the ideal way to optimise executive functions in children. It is an interesting theory, and all roads seem to lead in that direction, but it’s one area that is still lacking in enough research to confirm in full.
How children understand and recall their environmental surroundings (from their immediate environment to larger environments) is a frequent research area. This research body has identified that children who travel actively through walking, running or cycling have a better awareness of their environment than those who travel in cars or other vehicles. Specifically, they demonstrated superior skills in travel independence, speed of travel and way-finding16 These skills are considered vital for the development of spatial knowledge in children.17
Time in nature appears to enhance the attention spans in children. Specifically, children who live with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) 18. A paper focusing on the link between child development and time outdoors in nature describes time outdoors as a ‘type of therapy for ADHD’. This research is particularly beneficial for schools who have students living with ADHD. Forest schools, outdoor classrooms or additional playtime outdoors may help all children do better in schools, especially those who live with ADHD.
Many studies advocate the effects of outdoor play on a child’s cognitive development. The few studies mentioned above highlight the extent and diversity of such advantages. A growing body of research links a child’s emotional, mental, spiritual and physical health and development directly with nature. Furthermore, the studies highlighted above demonstrate how advantageous it is for a child to actively travel to and from school, rather than being driven to school; and have access to a rich outdoor environment complete with shrubs, nature, climbing opportunities, shelter and plenty of room to run around and play.
A simple act such as creating a forest school or outdoor classroom, or enhancing your school’s play areas could influence the students in more ways than one. All of which can lead to better learning capacity, improved moods, readiness to learn and compliance; a pleasant school experience for the children and staff and confident children who display sound self-esteem and healthy development.
Social and emotional development and cognitive development already show strong arguments for encouraging children to spend more time outdoors. But there’s one more body of research linked to outdoor play; a child’s physical development and wellbeing. The research in this field is too broad to cover adequately in this paper. Still, this section will highlight the fundamental studies relating to a child’s physical development in which a significant focus is on health outcomes from outdoor play research 19, 20.
Myopia is an eye condition that poses high costs for optical correction that usually develops in adulthood; however, it’s prevalence in young children is increasing. Children who develop myopia are at risk of developing high myopia, which has many complications and may struggle to concentrate in school. Because of the increase in myopia in children, research is growing to determine what may be causing this rise. The studies on myopia suggest a correlation between how much time a child spends outdoors and the onset of myopia. Spending time outdoors appears to build a protective quality against myopia.
A Cross-sectional study of children in several Sydney schools that included a comprehensive eye examination and a detailed questionnaire on activity reveals that higher outdoor activity levels are associated with more hyperopic refractions and lower myopia prevalence in 12-year-old students 21.
Some of the health benefits associated with a physically active lifestyle in children are more well known than others; for example, we might associate physical activity with weight control, and a healthy, active lifestyle. However, increased physical activity in children is also associated with decreased cardiovascular disease and increased life expectancy. A paper on cardiovascular health in children discusses how healthy physical fitness levels that expend significant energy can counter the cardiovascular issues and improve circulation 22.
Good circulation gives children a better ability to concentrate; it improves their sleep and promotes good health in general. When a child’s circulation is poor, aside from the associated health risks, the child may also experience cognitive dysfunction, fatigue and issues that can influence their ability to concentrate and perform academically, like digestive disorders, cold limbs and tingling sensations in their bodies.
Promoting Physical Activity in Children and Youth Paper shows that encouraging outdoor activity in school, through outdoor classrooms, sports and exercise and outdoor play helps children live a healthier, more active lifestyle and elicits alertness during class time 23.
Furthermore, the studies on outdoor play and circulation (mentioned earlier in this paper) in children have noted that when a child’s circulation is healthy, they naturally lead a more active lifestyle and their levels of inactivity during and after school reduces.
Researchers suggest that outdoor activities influence immunity development. Studies report that children who spend a significant amount of time outdoors in the right environment show a considerable reduction of non-attendance at school due to illness 24.
Spending time outdoors in all seasons, winter, and summer allows children access to micro-biodiversity that improve their immune systems. They develop more microbes in their guts and on their skin than children who are deprived of outdoor play. These studies also confirm that the kind of environment that helps immunity are green and diverse, with lots of shrubs, plants and insects naturally present in the environment.
It may at first appear that the physical advantages of a child spending more time outdoors, while impressive, do not significantly influence a child’s academic performance. Aside from the popular notion that a child who expends their excess energy may be more able to concentrate in class, a child who has access to enough outdoor time will also be healthier. They will take fewer sick days, they’ll be more active and therefore likely to participate in classroom activities and participate in outdoor activities at home. All of which will breed confidence and self-worth, while continuing to develop the right kind of cognitive and social, emotional skills necessary to grow into healthy adults and perform academically.
The research discussed above is strong and supports the idea that outdoor play can improve academic performance. Active travel promotes confidence, risk-taking, independence while compliance reinforces positive behaviours supporting confidence and decision making. Sensory play incites complex skills like language development, problem-solving, social interaction, gross motor skills and executive function. The social and emotional advantages intertwine with outdoor play’s cognitive benefits, not to mention the physical rewards. The picture is positive and compounding; these skills in children are why enough outdoor play could be the perfect medicine for improving academic performance in schools.
If a child fails to accomplish one of the areas mentioned above, specifically in their emotional and cognitive development, the picture is not bright. If a child fails to develop adequate risk-taking skills, it influences their confidence and self-esteem, they may fail to take sufficient risks in their studies, and socially. This expression of confidence could be a simple act, such as asking a question in class. This experience compounds, over time, further reinforcing the notion into adulthood that risk-taking is not good for them. If you add into the mix, the consequences of a lack of compliance, or ability to focus, or a lack of any other experience mentioned above the child experiences a negative feedback loop through to adulthood.
It may seem to be a simplistic approach to consider that all a child needs is to spend more time outdoors to help them develop adequately and perform better in school, perhaps it’s because being outdoors is such a natural thing. Nonetheless, the research speaks for itself. There is enough evidence to suggest that children should be offered opportunities for active, high- quality outdoor play regularly. Especially play in diverse conditions like those you’d find in nature. The aim should be to create a space that allows for peer interactions, risk-taking, and the development of the motor skills mentioned earlier in this paper. Encouraging active travel to and from school is also critical to help a child grow and develop appropriately – independent mobility appears to be particularly crucial for school-aged children.
The research indicates that if a child struggles with academic tasks, the common sense approach of engaging the child indirect instruction is not the answer. Instead, encouraging the child to engage in unstructured outdoor play is more likely to help them develop their executive functions – the skills needed to support their academic and social skills in school. This approach could be the key that turns the lock for many children who otherwise may become lost and left behind; studies show that the children who have the lowest executive function levels gain the most from this approach. 25 These findings have been surprising for many schools who have taken various methods to support their students in spending time outdoors by establishing no homework policies and instead encouraging active play after school. 26,27.
While the schools mentioned above appear to be on the right track in helping their students gain access to much needed and critical time outdoors, encouraging parents to allow their children access to unstructured play outside that involves risk-taking is a different problem entirely and something that many are not so willing to do. This problem could explain why children today are frequently deficient in outdoor time.
Heightened risk aversion in parents results in fewer opportunities for independent outdoor play 28. Many studies discuss how parental safety concerns are central to the decline in play and independent mobility observed today. In one of the most extensive international surveys from Family Kids and Youth Research Now on child development and outdoor play, 49% parents cited fear of predators with traffic danger showing almost as many concerns at 43% 29. Parents may also limit their child’s outdoor time due to the pressures of everyday life; they may restrict activities to supervised spaces or the home, drive their children to clubs, friends and schools or allow, even rely on screen-based activities to help entertain their children.
This incline in risk-taking fears from parents presents a challenge for children deprived of key developmental opportunities they can garner from outdoor time. It also poses problems for schools who knowingly or unknowingly depend on adequate child development to accomplish their targets and meet the child’s academic needs.
Schools need to find ways to counter the effects of play deficiency in children if they want to increase their student’s academic performance. They cannot rely on parents alone to hold the baton of responsibility today. Even if schools educate parents on the importance of outdoor play, and advocate for parents allowing their children to spend more time outdoors; it won’t be significant enough to counter the fear of the risks they associate with unsupervised time outdoors. Furthermore, even if some parents were to find ways to address these needs, not all will. This outcome will create a greater divide between high performing and underperforming children. This approach will significantly impact the wellbeing of the underperforming children academically and socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically.
All children deserve the right to high-quality outdoor time, and schools may be the key to helping them accomplish that.
“The right to play is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the importance of ensuring children have opportunities and spaces to play, where they feel safe and can enjoy themselves without adult direction, is now widely accepted.” – Play Scotland
Schools may need to take control of this matter and lead the way for providing more high-quality outdoor time to children, but it doesn’t have to be a complicated matter. Simple steps to improve a child’s outdoor play area and introducing a walk or cycle to school scheme are reasonable first steps. But there are plenty more ways to encourage children to spend quality time outdoors. Some interesting and successful strategies already implemented in schools worldwide are below:
The study referenced earlier in this article highlighted that children thrive and develop motor skills from a large, flat environment (providing plenty of opportunities to run around). This environment can be a school playground or playing field. If a school allowed for more access to these facilities to children and encouraged outdoor classroom activities in these environments, they would take great strides in tackling outdoor play deprivation in children.
To enhance their efforts, schools would benefit from enriching the outdoor environment to encourage other motor skills like plucking, hiding, throwing and climbing. The study shows how providing shelter significantly increases motor skills development in children and provides a practical solution to cold or damp British weather.
Adding shrubs, climbing plants, insects, gardening opportunities and even a petting zoo will all help. As would the addition of a climbing frame and hiding or socialising opportunities. Schools are commonly installing outdoor canopies, or shade sails to provide shelter – it is a simple approach with a long-term advantage.
Loose parts play research appears to encourage positive interactions between students and is a method some schools use to change their outdoor play environment 30,31. It is an exciting but surprising approach to promoting quality outdoor time that supports social-emotional development and reduces perception intimidation during rough interactions and interactive play. For example, in a study, students were more likely to say they were pushed on the playground and report being happy at a school rather than report a rough play incident as bullying. 32
Introducing loose parts play into an outdoor play environment involves introducing large objects with no clear play purpose to the playing fields or playground.33 It’s a promising approach, but more research is necessary to establish its potential fully.34
The concept of forest schools originates from Scandinavia but are growing in the UK. A sense of connection with nature and the environment is the Danish approach and inspiration for forest schools—the Danish favour fresh air and movement in their approach to childcare.
Forest schools are appropriate for all ages, but children benefit the most from these experiences. While there’s still very little research on forest schools, an interview with forest schools staff highlights how children attend a forest school regularly for a half or a whole day, regardless of weather conditions. Ideally, children would attend a forest school for one year to experience woodland in all seasons.
Initial visits to the forest school encourage children to explore and play in the natural environment; splashing in mud puddles, forest games, climbing and collecting natural items to build a larger project. As a child advances, when children understand the safety rules, they move onto using adult size tools like bow saws and loppers, to build a fire, which they later use to toast popcorn or marshmallows. The forest school emphasises that safety is taken very seriously, with a high adult-child ratio. At the end of the season, parents participate in a ‘celebration day’ to see their children’s achievements. 35
There are several forest schools that schools can participate in, in the UK. Some schools are also beginning to build their version of a forest school by installing timber-framed canopies and play areas, lush habitation, and creating classes that can use their forest school.
Both options highlighted above appear to be interesting and viable ways to encourage children to spend more time learning outdoors.
Using the concept of forest schools and combining it with an outdoor shelter that incorporates lighting and heating in cooler weather, schools could create the opportunity to teach outdoors. Teaching everyday subjects outdoors will bring some advantages for children and will encourage them to begin to enjoy being outdoors, but if that’s combined with a rich and diverse outdoor play environment where they’re encouraged to be active the results will likely increase. A math lesson using rocks and twigs to count and divide will be more likely to remain in a child’s memory than the same class sitting in a classroom.
Incorporating field studies into your curriculum involving active outdoor time will also support a child’s development through outdoor play. The sensory experiences will also encourage concentration and lesson recall helping the child to learn more easily.
Many schools already participate in a walk or cycle to school schemes to encourage active risk-taking, spatial awareness, confidence, critical thinking and emotional development. But it should not be the only approach. Most parents are afraid of the risks that stranger danger and traffic pose to their children, and at present, they can pose real risks – especially traffic dangers. However, the government has plans to create more pedestrian and cycle routes that interconnect over the coming years, which will support your efforts.
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