Why kids need active outdoor play, every day

As a pediatric physiotherapist and director of a nature play program, outdoor play is always on my mind. But since the pandemic, I think outdoor play is now on almost every parent’s mind! 

We’re all doing our best to help our children learn and develop, and we’re being bombarded with resources about how to keep them busy. Yet there’s a very accessible, affordable, and straightforward way to facilitate healthy child development: send our kids outside to play! 

Before we dive straight into the wonders of the outdoors, let’s do a quick “Development 101.”

Physical activity builds healthy brains

Sensory and motor development are foundational to higher-level thinking skills and academic learning. It’s unfair of us to expect higher-level skills like sustained attention and complex academic learning when children aren’t given the time and opportunity to develop these foundational skills. The easiest and most effective way to support these skills is plenty of sensory-rich outdoor playtime!

About the author

Devon Karchut is a pediatric physiotherapist and director of TimberNook of Greater Calgary, a nature play program for kids. She’s the mother of a spirited six-year-old, and loves nothing more than a day spent playing outside! Follow TimberNook of Greater Calgary on Facebook and Instagram for more outdoor play ideas and developmental tidbits.

Full-body, sensory-rich, meaningful play experiences are essential to children’s intellectual and physical development. Young kids naturally seek out the types of play that serve the systems their brain is trying to develop.

If your child seems obsessed with jumping or experimenting with making different sounds, for example, it’s because their brain is busy building their proprioceptive and auditory systems!

Why indoor play alone isn’t enough

The outdoors supports child development in ways that indoor environments simply cannot. Here’s why:

There are fewer rules to limit children’s play

Big, loud, and messy play is usually much more tolerated outdoors than indoors. Outside, adults don’t have to police every movement, and children have the opportunity to experiment and take risks.

When provided with a safe, “yes” environment outdoors (more on this later!), kids can do the things their brain and body are seeking. They can run, jump, spin, and climb, yell, sing, and play in the dirt without adults always telling them to slow down, be quiet, and stay clean! 

Big movements stimulate the vestibular system

Running, jumping, rolling, spinning, and climbing all change the position of the head, which stimulates the vestibular system. This sensory system is the “air traffic controller” or organizer for all of the other senses and influences things like attention, regulation, balance, spatial awareness, and coordination of the eye muscles.

Children need regular, repeated, and rapid stimulation of the vestibular system, which occurs much more naturally in an outdoor setting. 


Related read: Why outdoor play is more important than ever


Rich sensory experiences are found in nature

Think beyond sensory bins. Save yourself some time, and use the sensory stimulation that the outdoors provides for you!

When they play outside, children feel wind on their cheeks and sun on their arms. They feel prickly grass, cold snow, and rough bark. Time outdoors has also been correlated with a decreased prevalence of myopia (near-sightedness) because the eye is forced to look at objects from a distance.

Indoor sensory experiences can also be over-stimulating (think of the pungent smells, flashing lights, loud noises, and bright colours of an indoor playground!), but the outdoors tends to offer “just right” stimuli. 

There are more opportunities to develop core strength

Core strength is critical for the development of balance and stabilization of the body for fine motor movements. Climbing trees, carrying buckets of dirt or water, shoveling, pulling a wagon, and pushing a wheelbarrow all require activation of the core.

As a physiotherapist, I often target core strength in my sessions, but I find that during indoor play, engagement of the core doesn’t happen as naturally as it does outdoors. I have to use more exercises and prescribed activities like wheelbarrow walks and yoga.

Although activities like this can be fun, they may not be motivating or meaningful to the child—two factors required for something to be considered “play.” An hour of digging in the dirt and climbing trees is much more effective and fun than pulling teeth to get a child to do five minutes of exercises!  

Tip: Create a “yes” space for outdoor play

Although play in nature has the most profound impact on development, there are opportunities to play out on your own deck, or in your backyard or neighbourhood. Any safe outdoor environment with a few well-thought-out materials can provide the developmental benefits discussed in this article. 

During this time when many of us are feeling overwhelmed, remember that often the best outdoor play is very simple. Instead of painstakingly setting up activities for your kids, create a “yes” environment outside and let them take charge! 

Simple materials to inspire outdoor play at home: 

  • Bucket and pulley, with pinecones or toys to put in the bucket
  • Unique sandbox toys like dinosaurs or action figures
  • Lots of cardboard boxes of different sizes
  • Simple rope swing
  • Paintbrushes and water to ‘paint’ the deck or fence
  • Scrap wood, old tires
  • Toys that are typically played with indoors, like dolls, blankets, and pillows
  • Old pots, pans, and scoops for a simple mud kitchen
  • Small loose parts like rocks, corks, little pieces of wood, pinecones
  • Ways to move around loose parts, like mini wheelbarrows, sleds, wagons, buckets, and baskets

Embrace a fresh take on outdoor play. Your children’s brains and bodies will thank you!  

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