- Early Childhood
If you’re looking for one of our preschool classes on a sunny day, you may want to check the little forest in the southeast corner of campus that we affectionately call ‘The Pines’. Or, perhaps look further to the west near the old stone wall, a favorite spot among our early childhood students. When you find us, there could be any number of imaginative games happening. Earlier in the year when our class became interested in the moon and its cycles, the forest became a cave and every student was a wolf howling in the night. They have also been policemen, explorers, bandits, and heroes in countless stories of their telling. The greatest gift of this time spent outdoors, engaged in their own self-directed play, is that the children are busy learning in a hundred different ways that they aren’t even aware of.
The outdoors offers children amazing physical and mental health benefits. It provides an environment free of over-stimulation or limits and is naturally full of open-ended materials that allow them to use their creativity in many different ways. The benefits are particularly enhanced when children are allowed to explore, play, and use their imagination without rules and adult intervention (we call this type of play “free play”). Below are just a few examples of the incredible growth our Tigers are experiencing when we remove the classroom walls and head outside.
Physical Benefits of Outdoor Play
- All five senses are engaged.
Outdoors, children are listening for the sounds of nearby birds and objects such as sticks crashing around them. They are watching for the bright flashes of color as their friends run by and navigating the rock up ahead so that they can leap just in time. The grass is cool on their hands when they bend down and the low-hanging leaves feel soft as they brush past. The warm sun heats up their cheeks and they run for shade to cool themselves. The flowers nearby become irresistible smells. Or as our class did, they hunt down the “stinky smell” until they find the dark onion grass growing in patches. This leads to tasting the grass, declaring it spicy, and running away to explore more new experiences.
- The vestibular sense is challenged.
With the rise in sedentary activities and screen time available, children’s core strength, endurance, and balance are at a measurable decline compared to children in the 1980’s, as shared in the book Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom. One way to combat this is by strengthening the vestibular sense. This sense, which includes all of those little hairs on the insides of our inner ear, is stimulated by things such as jumping, spinning, climbing, and rolling. It’s challenged by things such as uneven or rocky terrain and hills, which strengthen coordination, body awareness, and skillful balance. The vestibular sense is so interconnected with our body's auditory and visual senses, that if just one is at a weakness, the others are affected as well.
- Fine motor coordination is developed.
When we think of the outdoors, we often picture gross motor skills, or the big muscles of bodies, working. But outdoors, children’s fine motor skills are enhanced as well. How careful they must be to pluck one flower from a patch of them! Dissecting pine cones, digging through rocks to find just the right one, pulling grass blade by blade from the ground - these all hone the muscles in children’s hands which eventually help to create a firm pencil grasp, lovely handwriting, scissor skills, and countless other academic-based movements that they will call upon in their school career.
Mental/Social Benefits of Outdoor Play
- Stress Relief
According to research by the American Psychological Society, just by working in a room with a window view of green space - trees, bushes, or large lawns, feelings of frustration are diminished and people report feeling calmer at work. Thankfully our school’s classrooms boast beautiful green space views! Nature offers an innate calming mechanism that can soothe agitation and improve the inability to concentrate. By spending time playing outdoors, we offer children the chance to lower cortisol levels, a stress-related hormone found naturally in the body, which helps lead to higher academic success in the classroom.
- Social Skills
When children are outdoors with their siblings or friends, they must pull from an arsenal of social skills to work together. Unlike in organized sports with coaches and teammates, there are no set rules in an impromptu game with kings and castles, so children begin to create guidelines together. They negotiate, compromise, take turns, and find appropriate ways to handle frustration and big feelings. Outdoors, children have the freedom to both join in or opt-out of scenarios, practicing the decision-making skills they will use throughout life.
- Problem-Solving Skills
Have you ever felt tired, overwhelmed, or unable to think through a problem well at work or home? When you finally hit your wit's end, you head outdoors for a few minutes. You breathe in the air, listen to the birds, maybe take a power walk through the parking lot, and suddenly the problem doesn’t seem as difficult as it had minutes ago. At the very least you probably feel more capable of thinking through it and more relaxed as you head back indoors. When children are given the opportunity to freely play outdoors, research shows creativity is boosted and problem-solving abilities are enhanced. When at play, neurons at the front of children’s brains begin making new connections, and these neurons play an important role in things such as emotional regulation, planning, and critical thinking.
There are many more physical and mental benefits to playing outdoors. I’m including a few of my favorite research-based book recommendations if you’d like to dive deeper into this topic. As summer approaches and warm weather beckons, I hope we all find ourselves outdoors, playing freely and remembering all of the beautiful growth and learning that is happening as we do so.
Books that inspired information in this article (no direct quotes):
Additional books that I recommend related to the topic:
About the Author
Preschool 4/5 Teacher