Most parents can probably think of quite a few perfectly good reasons to keep children indoors for much of the day. It’s where many of their toys and games are; you are never short of snacks or drinks; it’s secure and comfortable, and it’s warmer (or cooler, depending on where you are in the world). However, we think there are equally compelling reasons for children to get outdoors and play there as much as possible.
Indoor activities come at the cost of outdoor play. A general move away from outdoor play to sedentary indoor activities is happening across the globe. According to research by Connected Children, the average child spends more than six hours per day in front of a screen, increasing to as many as eight in the teenage years. This is a figure that has doubled over two decades. We probably played outdoors a lot more as children than our own children do now.
How is this generation of children missing out by playing indoors so much? What are the greatest benefits of outdoor play? At our Dubai nursery, we encourage our children to use our outdoor areas as much as possible. Here’s why:
It boosts children’s fitness levels
The big spaces outdoors generally encourage children to play differently. They have the space to run, jump, skip, roll, bounce, climb and hop. These all get their hearts beating faster and their muscles getting stronger. In other words, they get fitter playing in this manner.
We need to encourage children to exercise and get fit. It’s good for their long-term health, particularly heart health. It keeps them energized for their school or nursery days. It lowers the chance that they will become overweight and suffer from complications related to this, such as Type 2 diabetes. And it encourages good fitness and exercise habits that will hopefully stay with them for life.
It gets children closer to nature
As Sir David Attenborough makes clear in this quote: “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced,” it’s vital that children experience the wonders of nature. We cannot expect the next generation to nurture and protect the planet unless they have learned to appreciate its diversity and fragility.
By playing outside, children can get up close to nature. From gazing up at the clouds floating across the sky, to observing the tiniest ants moving their treasures, children can marvel at this incredible planet, and discover so much. With our help, they can learn to take care of and protect the different species and their habitats that are part of our outdoor space. We can raise a much-needed generation of nature lovers.
It boosts vitamin D levels
While we need to be mindful of the potential dangers of sun exposure, it is vital that we all know that the human body needs sunshine. When exposed to sunshine, the human body makes vitamin D. This vitamin is crucial to bone development and to the immune system. In extreme cases of vitamin D deficiency, dangerous diseases that can result in abnormal growth and skeletal deformities can occur.
Vitamin D cannot be acquired through diet so spending time outside is important. Just be mindful of local and seasonal advice as to how long it is safe to be outside without sunscreen.
It’s good for their moods
Research from the University of Colorado in 2014 found that getting children outdoors had a clear and positive impact on their emotional wellbeing. The children taking part in the study found playing outdoors to be peaceful and enjoyable. This reduced their stress levels. Researchers also found an additional benefit: friendships and social groups were nurtured through their outdoor play, too.
Increased vitamin D levels from sunshine also help mood levels by helping to release serotonin. This hormone is sometimes known as one of the “happy hormones” because of its links with the feeling of happiness.
It boosts creativity and confidence
When playing indoors, children are often drawn to either a gadget screen or to high-tech toys. The outdoors offers the complete opposite. If there are any toys outdoors, they are likely to be simple: a swing, a slide, a ride-on toy or some pavement chalks. This simplicity is a good thing. Unstructured outdoor play with little or no toys is an opportunity for creativity.
Let your child’s imagination go wild and play along with them as they invent games. At times like this, the creative part of their brain is developing. They are exploring. And at the same time, they are developing independence and self-confidence.
The physical play children enjoy outdoors comes with slightly higher risks of a tumble. This isn’t a bad thing. Children must learn to calculate risk and make sensible decisions. Without taking risks, a person will live a life always fearful of challenges and problems. If we keep children too restricted in a kind of bubble, they cannot learn to be brave and confident.
How to encourage your child to play outdoors
The arguments for outdoor play are compelling. Here are a few ideas to encourage the whole family away from the sofa and into the great outdoors.
- Make your outdoor areas at home nature-friendly and as inviting as possible to toddlers. Even if you only have a balcony, you can fill it with flowers that attract bees and some bird feeders. If you are lucky enough to have a backyard or garden, you can add some toys that encourage physical play, like ride-on toys or a climbing frame.
- Give your child a packet of seeds to grow or their own patch of garden to plant and tend.
- Provide your child with a magnifying glass for inspecting minibeasts, or a pair of child’s binoculars for wildlife spotting.
- Go on weekend adventures together. Check out local nature reserves, look for rockpool creatures at the beach or cycle through the forest.
- Visit your community park as often as possible as a whole family and take a ball. Get everyone running about.
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The more positive time your child spends outdoors, the more time they’ll choose to get out there themselves. By spending time out of the house with our children, we really are investing in their (and the planet’s) future.