For the vast majority of children, the opportunity to play outside is in decline. Parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play outside unsupervised and many schools have shortened their lunchtimes to reduce the school day and save costs. Even when there is an opportunity for outdoor play, many children shun this in favour of more sedentary pastimes, particularly spending time on phones, tablets, computers and games consoles.
The lack of opportunity and inclination to undertake physical activity outside has been shown by numerous studies to have a negative impact on both the health and development of children. These studies do show, however, that children who do participate benefit in many ways and these can have both long term and short term benefits for the child.
Here is a list of the main benefits:
1. Physical health benefits of outdoor play
One of the biggest benefits of outdoor play is that it can make children physically healthier. Playing outside, where there is more space, enables them to be more active. Whether they are just running around chasing each other or participating in a game or sport, physical activity allows them to burn off calories, build up muscular strength and fitness and improve the condition of the heart.
In schools, this can be encouraged by adding simple features such as playground markings or , exciting multi-skills Zones. Research from the Liverpool John Moors University showed that adding these features to a playground could increase the amount of time children participate in moderate to vigorous activity by around five minutes per day with over 70% of pupils benefitting from increased activity.
2. Mental health benefits of outdoor play
There is a lot of concern recently about how modern lifestyles affect the mental health of children, especially the pressure put on them by schools to achieve good results. A good way to help with this is to get more children active during their free time.
One of the main recommendations for people with depression and anxiety is to take part in physical activity as it increases endorphins and reduces stress. Getting children to do physical activity can be a way to keep children mentally healthy so that these problems do not arise in the first place.
Just being outside has its own health benefits, sunlight, whether it's cloudy or not, provides children with vitamin D and can help with mood. One of the main treatments for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is to increase exposure to natural sunlight.
3. How outdoor play improves learning
Outdoor play also has a significant impact on learning. Many of the basic learning skills teachers now want children to use in lessons are developed and honed through playing outside. These include collaboration, resilience, concentration and focus. By installing outdoor educational equipment such as trim trails, children can be motivated to take part in activities that will help develop these skills which can then be transferred to the classroom and more academic subjects.
Another benefit for teachers and parents is that taking part in physical activity can have a positive impact on behaviour. Studies have shown that when students take part in exercise they are much more likely to remain on task during lessons and be better behaved.
4. Developing creativity by playing outside
One of the most important things about outdoor play is that it is generally unstructured and this is ideal for letting children use their imaginations and develop their creativity. This is especially important for younger children who benefit enormously from taking part in roleplay to learn about the world in which they live. However, this doesn’t mean that older children should be ignored. Roleplay and performance equipment can encourage children of all ages to take their creativity to new levels.
5. Outdoor play to develop social skills
Whilst we can tell children how to interact socially, they are only going to develop those skills through practice. Playing outside where adults can keep an eye on things from a distance provides the ideal setting to help them do this whilst feeling safe.
Encouraging children to play together or take part in team sports can help them to communicate more effectively, learn social rules like turn taking, make new friends and show them how to resolve disputes and become skilled negotiators. You can encourage this by providing playground equipment that is specially designed to create social interaction.
6. Helping children become independent
One of the primary aims of education is to help children become independent adults. Once again, outdoor play has a role to play in making this happen. When in the playground, a child is much less supervised than in a classroom and needs to make their own decisions about what they want to play and who they want to play with.
This can be encouraged by providing equipment in which children need to make decisions, for example, when tackling a team adventure zone, they may need to choose their own route and negotiate unfamiliar pathways by themselves, helping to develop self-reliance.
7. Motivating children to take on new challenges
Modern outdoor play equipment allows you to offer more exciting challenges with far less risk of injury, such as climbing equipment built over safe playground flooring. These can help children to try new things and take on challenges which they might, previously, have been afraid to do – all without the intervention of adults. This is great for developing self-confidence and well-being as well as giving children a sense of achievement when they succeed.
Outdoor play has a lot of benefits for children and is something parents and teachers need to encourage. Getting it right can lead to happier, healthier children with better social skills, increased independence and a more positive outlook on life.
To give children the best opportunities for outdoor play, you should consider the equipment and facilities you provide to motivate them to participate. If you need inspiration for this, take a look at our wide range of outdoor play and sports equipment.