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Importance of outdoor play activities for kids

Discover the importance and benefits of outdoor play for kids. Being outdoors can be an exciting sensory experience in the early years; here we discuss some fun activities.

Being outside is the perfect place for kids to be kids with the freedom to shout, jump, run, hop or skip. In fact, by taking your children outdoors and supporting their play, you can help their development. This article covers lots of information about the positive impact and importance of outdoor activities for kids.

The importance of outdoor play for kids

Young children need the opportunity to use their whole body and develop their gross motor skills. It's only when they have mastered these that they will be able to control their fine motor skills, such as using a knife and fork or holding a pencil, for instance. As a result, children playing outside can have a positive impact.

The Play Strategy for Scotland 2013 says: ‘Open space allows children to be physically active and challenge themselves so they sleep and eat well and form healthy habits that will stay with them for life.’

We also know babies sleep better at night if they’ve had some fresh air and sunshine during the day, according to a study called The Relationship Between Daytime Exposure to Light and Night-time Sleep in 6-12 Week Old Infants.

It’s amazing how fresh air can blow away the cobwebs and make a world of difference to how you feel as well – especially on days when you haven’t had much sleep or your child is feeling a bit grumpy or grizzly at home.

Getting outside is also an opportunity to get some exercise and meet friends. Many NCT branches, for instance, hold Big Push events where local parents can join in 5km walks with their children in buggies, slings or just toddling along.

Nature activities for kids

The changing nature of the outdoors makes it an incredibly stimulating and multi-sensory place to play. This is important as babies and young children learn and gain experience through all their senses.

Children who gain knowledge and appreciation of nature are more likely to become adults with a greater sense of environmental awareness.

While getting out and about is exciting, it may be frightening or daunting for some little ones so be aware of new sensations that could startle or alarm them.

A great way to create happy memories of outdoor play and nature is to collect and bring things home, such as twigs, leaves or stones. These can be decorated, put in a keepsake jar or used to make a picture. Keeping items like this in your child’s view for a few days will remind them of their adventures outside and also help with their awareness of shapes, colours and textures.

Urban spaces

Not everyone has easy access to natural spaces outside, with many families in the UK living in built-up urban areas. There might not be woodlands on your doorstep, but there will still be some ways in which you can get outside with your little ones in your neighbourhood. Most local authority websites have a ‘parks and open spaces’ section where you can find free, local outdoor play areas to visit. Think about what you can do in the space you have. In most places, for instance, you can run around with your children or look up to watch the clouds, birds and planes go by.

Regardless of the scenery, being outside is a chance to spend time with your children without interruption and the distractions that are more likely to affect playtime indoors. It can be really therapeutic to switch off your phone for a while and enjoy the simple pleasure of spending time with your child – they’ll feel the benefit of your attention as well as you.

Embracing risk

The fear of traffic, concerns over personal safety and even the weather can affect how parents feel about their children playing outdoors. Finding the right balance between safety and encouraging new experiences can be tricky.

Before starting an activity, ask yourself: what will my child gain from doing this, then to think about the risks, and finally consider how you might avoid or mitigate those risks. If you think most risks are either a) avoidable by taking appropriate care or b) unlikely to happen, then just get on with enjoying the activity.

Keep it simple

And what if you’re all set to get outside but have no idea what to do once you’re there? Not all of us feel as comfortable or confident in outdoor play or embracing nature. Start small and keep it simple. Think about the games you played as a child. Give your child the idea and let them run with it.

When it comes to play – especially outdoors – there is no right or wrong way. The best thing is to just get out there and see what the day holds.

Further information

Find out what’s happening in your area and meet other parents

Join an NCT Big Push event 

Reconnect with nature at Project Wild Thing

Learning through Landscapes has lots of great outdoor play ideas