How Outdoor Play Helps Children Grow Intellectually

Without play, the intellectual lives of children become stagnant and dull.

Play is the work of childhood, and it is the process of play that moves children forward in development and ignites their love for learning. The opportunity to play inspires children to move, think, discuss, experiment, fail and recover, form relationships, cooperate, lead, collaborate, and play. Without play, the intellectual lives of children become stagnant and dull.

Too much time spent indoors and in front of screens can produce deficits in children and can be upsetting to their mental health. Having regular unstructured outdoor time improves children’s mood and brain functioning and lessens problems like ADHD. On the other hand, when children have a rich and diverse natural environment, they find all kinds of stuff to do and think about. They play bigger games with more friends and more complex scenarios. It is a wondrous thing.

Something as simple as a rainstorm can lead to important interactions for preschool children who might join together to splash in the puddles, or carefully scoop water into a toy truck, or even create a system to move the water through the sand.

There is a growing body of research that illustrates the importance of natural environments as the context for children’s work and play. Below are some of the ways outdoor play benefits children:

  • Nature reduces stress. Children whose home environment includes access to natural spaces cope better with family stress.
  • Nature has an “attention-restorative” effect. Children working in outdoor classrooms demonstrate decreases in distractibility, increases in attention to task, and increases in concentration and success with problem solving.
  • Playing in nature improves social connections. Children who play in natural spaces play more, play with more friends, and play with less conflict.
  • Outdoor learning spaces provide  opportunities for more open-ended cognitive challenges. Nature presents novel problems that stimulate children’s thinking, such as how to water the middle of the garden, how to drain the puddle on the slide, what to think of the new chrysalis on the butterfly bush, what can be discovered while digging in the dirt.
  • Playing outdoors allows more opportunity for messy (mud, paint, bubbles), loud (shrieking, drumming, hammering), and ebullient (dancing, flailing, gesticulating) activities of childhood that promote development, learning, and fun.
  • Nature promotes a sense of well-being. Children instructed to sit in a natural setting for five minutes (vs. sitting in a sparse room) demonstrate a significant decrease in muscle tension, skin conductivity, and heart rate and report feeling more content.

At The Raleigh School, our preschool teachers have consciously moved away from commercial structures and surfaces that look inviting at first but are actually quite sterile and narrowing for children’s play. Instead, the school has created natural learning environments, or “playscapes,” that are more suited to the natural play of children. Every day, our students run, dig, splash, experiment and play outside, both during recess and outdoor “center time.” Such environments encourage them to engage in the physical world with their bodies, minds, hearts, and friends.

Dr. Elizabeth Gilleland is the Preschool Director of The Raleigh School, an independent school accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and serving children in preschool through fifth grade. The Raleigh School has recently been awarded the NC Green School of Quality award.

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