outdoor play for children

The Benefits of Outdoor Play for Children

We’ve all read about children spending too much time on their devices and needing to be more active. The statistics on overweight and obese children are testament to the fact that children need to eat well, get moving and reduce their screen time.

Getting kids moving has never been more important

Getting kids moving has never been more important. 1 in 4 Aussie kids are now overweight or obese, and 80% of children don’t get enough physical activity.

Outdoor play not only gets children of all ages active, which helps to manage weight, it has a host of other benefits as well.

Research shows that playing outdoors boosts children’s cognitive development and mental health. The unstructured nature of playing outdoors prompts children to think more creatively to come up with solutions.

And it’s not just the physical and mental benefits…

There are also a host of social benefits. Playing outdoors often involves collaboration with other children and interactions that may not take place indoors or in more structure learning environments such as schools.

Time spent in nature isn’t just great for young kids! Adolescents and adults get benefits too. A whole body of research shows the benefits across all ages. For example, one specific study showed that an urban forest program promotes physical activity and decreases risky behavior in at-risk adolescents. Also a program involving forest therapy increased vulnerable children’s self-esteem and decreased depression.

Parks Victoria’s top tips for outdoor play:

Make it fun

The easiest way to get children moving is to entice them with fun! And what’s more fun than getting outdoors for some free play – to make your own fun and let your imagination run wild.

Keep it simple

Don’t feel you need to provide too much direction or equipment. You’ll be amazed at what kids find to do in an unstructured outdoor environment. Think back to simpler times, of building cubbies, climbing trees and playing chasey.

Start small

If you or your children aren’t used to outdoor play then don’t head straight for a wilderness area a long way from home if that feels too daunting. Start with a visit to your local neighbourhood park with a friend or two. Then build up the adventure levels as you go so everyone is comfortable.

Allow your child to take acceptable risks

Research shows that children who learn to take acceptable risks develop better judgement than those who are protected from taking any risks. For example, don’t let them climb a giant tree on their first outing, but do allow them to clamber on a low ropes course if they seem confident and capable of it.

Find a park that offers a natural playscape

This isn’t always possible but if you can, look out for parks with well-designed natural playscapes. We now have evidence that shows children are significantly more active in parks that encourage them to connect with the natural environment.

Incorporate technology or activities

If your child is completely addicted to their devices, increase the appeal of getting outdoors by incorporating technology into getting active in nature. Good examples of this are geocaching challenges or photography. Alternatively, go to www.juniorrangers.com.au and download a range of activities to keep kids exploring and active in parks.

Tips from an Accredited Exercise Physiologist

Our grandparents have been harping on about outdoor play for decades, and now science has confirmed it – being more physically active in nature has huge physical and psychological benefits for children. Physically, being more active outdoors;
• Improves coordination, muscle strength, flexibility and self-confidence
• Improves neurological development involved in fine and gross motor skills

What kinds of “play” can help our kids get fitter and stronger?

Play isn’t structured, which is great! Children will naturally participate in a range of movements that both strengthens their muscles and improves their cardiorespiratory fitness, without realising that they are doing “physical activity”.

Activities that get kids doing different types of movement, like climbing, jumping or crawling, are great! Try:

• Encouraging children to pick an animal and run, jump, swing, or crawl like that animal
• Setting up an obstacle course using logs, play equipment, or chalk on the footpath
• Play hide-and-seek

If your child is living with a chronic illness or disability, chat to an Exercise Physiologist. They can help to prescribe activities that are safe and individualised to your child’s needs. To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you, click here.

Written by Parks Victoria with contributions from Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Anna Campbell.