Cedarwood Waldorf School

Why Playing Outdoors Makes Children Smarter

| April 2, 2013 | 20 Comments

PlayingOut.articleAuthor and clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” It is through unstructured, open-ended creative play that children learn the ways of the world. While playing outside, children explore with all their senses, they witness new life, they create imaginary worlds and they negotiate with each other to create a playful environment.

  1. Outdoor play is a multi-sensory activity. While outdoors, children will see, hear, smell and touch things unavailable to them when they play inside. They use their brains in unique ways as they come to understand these new stimuli.
  2. Playing outside brings together informal play and formal learning. Children can incorporate concepts they have learned at school in a hands-on way while outdoors. For example, seeing and touching the roots of a tree will bring to life the lesson their teacher taught about how plants get their nutrients.
  3. Playing outdoors stimulates creativity. Robin Moore, an expert in the design of play and learning environments, says, “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imagination and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity.” Rocks, stones and dirt present limitless opportunities for play that can be expressed differently every time a child steps outside.
  4. Playing outdoors is open-ended. There is no instruction manual for outdoor play. Children make the rules and in doing so use their imagination, creativity, intelligence and negotiation skills in a unique way.
  5. Playing in nature reduces anxiety. Time spent outside physiologically reduces anxiety. Children bring an open mind and a more relaxed outlook back inside when they are in more traditional learning environments.
  6. Outdoor play increases attention span. Time spent in unstructured play outdoors is a natural attention builder. Often children who have difficulty with pen and paper tasks or sitting still for long periods of times are significantly more successful after time spent outside.
  7. Outdoor play is imaginative. Because there are no labels, no pre-conceived ideas and no rules, children must create the world around them. In this type of play, children use their imagination in ways they don’t when playing inside.
  8. Being in nature develops respect for other living things. Children develop empathy, the ability to consider other people’s feeling, by interacting with creatures in nature. Watching a tiny bug, a blue bird or a squirrel scurrying up a tree gives children the ability to learn and grow from others.
  9. Outdoor play promotes problem solving. As children navigate a world in which they make the rules, they must learn to understand what works and what doesn’t, what lines of thinking bring success and failure, how to know when to keep trying and when to stop.
  10. Playing outside promotes leadership skills. In an environment where children create the fun, natural leaders will arise. One child may excel at explaining how to play the game, while another may enjoy setting up the physical challenge of an outdoor obstacle course. All types of leadership skills are needed and encouraged.
  11. Outdoor play widens vocabulary. While playing outdoors, children may see an acorn, a chipmunk and cumulous clouds. As they encounter new things, their vocabulary will expand in ways it never could indoors.
  12. Playing outside improves listening skills. As children negotiate the rules of an invented game, they must listen closely to one another, ask questions for clarification and attend to the details of explanations in ways they don’t have to when playing familiar games.
  13. Being in nature improves communication skills. Unclear about the rules in an invented game? Not sure how to climb the tree or create the fairy house? Children must learn to question and clarify for understanding while simultaneously making themselves understood.
  14. Outdoor play encourages cooperative play. In a setting where there aren’t clear winners and losers, children work together to meet a goal. Perhaps they complete a self-made obstacle course or create a house for a chipmunk. Together they compromise and work together to meet a desired outcome.
  15. Time in nature helps children to notice patterns. The natural world is full of patterns. The petals on flowers, the veins of a leaf, the bark on a tree are all patterns. Pattern building is a crucial early math skill.
  16. Playing outdoors helps children to notice similarities and differences. The ability to sort items and notice the similarities and differences in them is yet another skill crucial to mathematical success. Time outdoors affords many opportunities for sorting.
  17. Time spent outdoors improves children’s immune systems. Healthy children are stronger learners. As children spend more and more time outdoors, their immune systems improve, decreasing time out of school for illness.
  18. Outdoor play increases children’s physical activity level. Children who play outdoors are less likely to be obese and more likely to be active learners. Children who move and play when out of school are ready for the attention often needed for classroom learning.
  19. Time spent outdoors increases persistence. Outdoor games often require persistence. Children must try and try again if their experiment fails. If the branch doesn’t reach all the way across the stream or the bark doesn’t cover their fairy house, they must keep trying until they are successful.
  20. Outdoor play is fun. Children who are happy are successful learners. Children are naturally happy when they are moving, playing and creating outside. This joy opens them up for experimenting, learning and growing.

Stacey Loscalzo is a freelance writer and mother of two girls living in Ridgewood, NJ. She and her girls have been getting outside to play for nearly a decade.




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Category: 2013_April, Health, Parenting, Summer Fun

Comments (20)

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  1. Stacey, This is such a bundle of great information about outside play! So many times, the great outdoors is overlooked for learning, stress reduction and creativity. I agree that playing outside is a must for children and am discouraged when recess is taken from a child as a punishment for not being able to settle down in class! Thanks for taking the time to share these points with us. I will share with my readers as well. Katherine

  2. Cathy Beach says:

    It would be great if you could put a Twitter Share button on here – am I missing it? I’m tweeting it manually because people need to be reminded of all of this! Tech is great but the outdoors is better!

    • Portland Family says:

      Thank you for that reminder, Cathy! We just added a share stack that allows you to share it over many platforms. This should make it easier for you to get the word out! Use it in good health.

  3. great observations……. perhaps another one: “belonging”…. important for kids. Usually neighborhood kids. A playground gives them an opportunity to belong. To play together, to know each other in a positive, fun way. A great option to joining a “gang”

  4. Emma says:

    As a ‘Play Ranger’ we encourage children to play outside alot more and to use natural resources to play and learn. Children love being outside and this way, they dont even realise sometimes that they are learning. This piece of information is excellent for my field of work as I am playworker and at the moment, we are trying to build a case as to why children play outside to support the funding extension for my job, so this is excellent and very useful so thank you very much for producing it as I feel it is a piece of work that many professionals and parents need to read. I will also pass this onto my colleagues as it is an excellent piece. Emma

  5. This is sound material, thanks. Comprehensive. Fair Play will publish it on our site – we always put up stuff where someone does it better than we have or might.

    Can we couple this tack with the almost certain knowledge that the age at which kids start to access outdoor play has risen markedly over the past 30-40 years – no need to rehearse all the reasons, they’re common currency.

    In that period we also have seen boys move from a superior achievement level in school/academic terms, to now trail their sisters. One theory would have it that boys tended to be slower in developmental terms and that this in the end benefited them because they “did things more thoroughly”. So what’s changed in that regard? Are girls now also benefiting from a slower rate of development to explain their advance against the boys? I’m less convinced by that approach than I was because it doesn’t explain why boys have now nose-dived as against their previous status (or did they only measure the brighter kids anyway, leaving the 80% untested…).

    We do know that early physical activity, motor activity is of huge importance in the overall development of the child. Is there a case to argue that maybe for boys it has even greater significance? I think the case is at least arguable, and ought to be tested rigorously. If true, it would mean that the trend over 3-4 decades to enclose children in narrow confines of homes, of not letting them out to play actively, has had a serious, even devastating effect on boys more than girls even.

    This moves the argument forward even from the very notable points made here, because it enables us to question whether current modes of containment of children in communities is having a most deleterious effect on boys. This is not to say it also does not matter hugely for girls but maybe not in the same way.

    I have seen enough of small children and at a later stage to know that there are early and probably innate differences. One wonders also if there would be a consequential tendency to frustration and thus behavioural issues which would manifest more often with boys.

  6. This is excellent information. We find push-back at schools wanting to develop natural play areas from parents who believe their kids are only learning if they are at their desks. The teachers need this information to inform the parents that play is vital! Administrators need this information too as we get sucked into the spiral of ill health from sedentary lifestyles.
    Thanks for sharing, Gayle@GreenstoneDesign

  7. I am very strongly in favor of outdoor activities and even give presentations on such, but this article had me wondering if it was an April Fool’s Day contribution. Nothing but broad assumptions lacking even a superficial understanding of cognition. You could replace “outdoor play” with “video games” and most of the list items wouldn’t change in the slightest. What would it have taken to produce an article from someone who didn’t just make it up as they went along?

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