Taking your kids to the playground is great, but do you ever notice that they get tired of using the play structure after just a few minutes? Playground equipment has changed a lot over the years, and often does not meet the sensory needs of children. After a couple rounds of swinging across the monkey bars and heading down the slide, kids are asking to go home. We all know that un-plugging and heading outside is good for children, but the benefits of unstructured outdoor play are much greater than that.
The real magic happens outside of the jungle gym. The outdoors is the ideal setting for evaluating risks and accepting challenges (Balanced and Barefoot, 2016). The author talks about a balance beam indoors, and how there are no surprises. The temperature is stable, the beam is smooth and level. However, crossing over a log outside is anything but predictable. You might have to adjust your balance quickly when you step onto a soft spot, or if it is sitting on mud that begins to slide.
The outdoors can be uncertain and inconsistent, which creates confidence in our kiddos. Children are often more capable of assessing risk than we give them credit for (Balanced and Barefoot, 2016). Instead of running away from all risks, we need to let children experience opportunities to develop the essential physical skills they need to stay safe. When appropriate risks are taken, children feel pride in their abilities. Lenore Skenazy (Free-Range Kids) talks about reasonable childhood independence, and how it is necessary for kids to step up to face the challenges of everyday life.
Outdoor play also has fewer rules and guidelines (Balanced and Barefoot), which leads to more creative play. During free play, children negotiate and determine their own rules. Moreover, unstructured outdoor play leads to creativity. How many ways can you play with a stick? Is it a fishing rod, a magic wand, or the beginning of a secret fort? Children use critical thinking skills when they do not have access to toys and commercial products. Let their imagination guide them - you may be surprised at the things they come up with.
Being outside and surrounded by nature is calming, and is more of a neutral sensory environment. The colours are muted, the sounds are more natural, and the scents are definitely not made in a lab. Outdoors, we are less overwhelmed by our senses. Researchers from Stockholm University have found that the sounds of nature can even provide a therapeutic effect on our bodies.
When we are outside, motor skills are built in a fun, productive way. Climbing that tree or pushing that rock out of the way builds strength in the core, shoulders, arms, and legs, which are necessary for printing, colouring, and reading. Other children act as the coach and cheer each other on as new skills are learned.
HELP KIDS PLAY OUTDOORS
> Have your children collect sticks and rocks and see what
they can build
> Make nature art - paint rocks or make a picture using leaves
> Send your kids outside with a mason jar and a magnifying glass
> Collect 'loose parts,' such as sand, water, sticks, small logs,
buckets, & tubes
> Go fruit or berry picking
> Plant a garden
> Plan nothing - see what your children come up with!
When adults stand back, kids stand up - Lenore Skenazy