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The Importance of Outdoor Play

Dear Debi,
I have been a child care provider for about a year. The children have an area where they can safely play outdoors but I would like some new ideas for outdoor games so the children can be exposed to new learning activities. Any ideas?
Nelly, Downey, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Make time for outdoor play part of every day
  • Provide a variety of simple materials and equipment
Expert Advice
Anita Britt, Ph. D.
Anita Britt, Ph. D.
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
Outdoor play is important because kids really gain a sense of mastery and competency of skills from outdoor play. When they do something like climb up a little dirt hill and maneuver their way down, they learn they can do this, which really adds to their sense of confidence.

They also gain important physical skills because they are learning to run and use their bodies in different ways than if they were playing indoors. There’s also a lot of social interaction that goes on when they play outdoors. Because they generally receive less direction from adults, they can learn by running, yelling, and using their outside voices. They learn what’s appropriate in this setting that may not be appropriate in other settings.

In activities such as water play or sand play, kids are pouring sand back and forth into containers of different sizes, shapes, and volume. So they see that “this much water or sand fits into this container” which they can learn from. Outdoor play is less structured, so it naturally gives children more opportunity for discovery. It gives them a sense of freedom, because adults back off a little bit more outside and allow kids to run and play with more energy and enthusiasm.

Even when you do activities outside, that you normally do indoors, they teach kids different skills. Building with blocks on an uneven surface outside, or playing with toy cars in the grass teaches them about different textures, sounds, and smells because the environment is naturally different from the indoors. Children learn from playing in an environment that’s not sanitized.

Outdoor play is often louder, with more physical movement. Kids also engage in different social interaction. Oftentimes when children are doing activities indoors, they aren’t given a choice of who to work with on the activity. But when they go outside, you will see groups of 2 or 3 children playing together and they learn different social skills in those smaller groups.

Kids also can learn about space, distance, and time in different ways. For example, a child might ask himself, “How long does it take me to run across the playground?” Outdoor play also adds to intellectual and cognitive development driven by the child’s interest. If they are interested in dramatic play or superhero play, they can do that safely outdoors with supervision. They are learning about their place in the word such as, “Who am I and how do I fit into the world?” Kids take their learning from each and every day and build on their learning with different experiences.

There are a few things to keep in mind when preparing your outdoor play area. The first thing to consider is children’s safety. Ask yourself, “Is there anything that a child can get hurt on?” Then you want to create areas where children can have a variety of experiences. You don’t need a lot of money to create this kind of area.

Children can create dramatic play outdoors with very little material. Allow them to create dramatic play with their minds. Let them explore their environment through their minds. Remember to make sure you supervise play if it turns into superhero play so that no one gets hurt. Kids can use their natural environment in dramatic play. Sometimes a big pile of leaves or a tree is all they need for dramatic play.
Child Care provider Comments
Family child care provider for 4 years
Playing outdoors allows kids to learn a world of things ranging from social and emotional development, such as learning to play differently with others, to lowering their anxiety by letting them burn off some excess energy.

There are different opportunities for kids when they’re outdoors, like hiding in a bush and playing by themselves instead of in a group. It also gives them the opportunity to develop their gross motor skills, not to mention exercise. It’s a chain reaction: they get moving, which in turn gets their hearts pumping leading to more oxygen to their brains. Once they come back inside, they’re ready to learn.
Family child care provider for 5 years
We have all the normal outdoor games like tether ball and tag outside. But one of the kids’ favorites is using sidewalk chalk and drawing on the patio floor. The kids and I will draw an obstacle course with the chalk and when the kids are done drawing it out, the kids can ride their tricycles through the course or if they want to, they can also go through the course on foot.
Carol (Woods)
Carol (Woods)
Child care provider for 13 years
In the summer, I take my grandchildren to the YMCA for swimming lessons. I also have tricycles and all kinds of outdoor toys for them to play with at my home. In addition, I have a garden where we plant and watch things grow. I also take them to the park so that they can climb on the playground and be more active than they can be when we’re at home.

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Topic: Play & Creativity
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