Today’s kids have adopted sedentary lifestyles, but more and more studies show that children need ‘rough and tumble’ outdoor play in order to develop their sensory and motor functions. Paediatric occupational therapist, Angela J Hanscom, tells MM how unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident and capable children…
Today it’s rare to find children climbing trees in the park and doing cartwheels in the garden. We’ve taken away merry-go-rounds and shortened the length of swings, and changed the way our children play in order to keep them safe. As a result, children have fewer opportunities for unstructured outdoor play than ever before, and play times at school are shrinking due to demanding educational environments where exams are all important at a younger and younger age.
Giving your children time to engage in free play is like giving them a very special gift – a gift that keeps on giving, preparing children for adulthood by cultivating and nurturing essential life skills. Play allows children opportunities to get creative, to practise regulating emotions, to enhance social development, and even to learn about themselves in the process.
Having the ability to play away from the adult world opens up many opportunities and feelings of freedom. It is fertile ground, a blank slate on which children develop their own stories and preferences. Children take ownership over their play experiences and get creative with what is around them. A stick can become a wand, a weapon, a fishing pole, a horse on which to gallop, a building material, or a tool. Leaves can become an ingredient for soup, a prop for art, medicine, money, decor, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
Through play and risk taking, children also learn about themselves. They learn their interests, their abilities, and how to regulate their emotions. Children learn to work through frustrations, fear, and anxiety as they successfully climb onto large rocks to have a picnic with friends or by having to negotiate a new play scheme because a friend just threatened to not play if they didn’t.
Children test their limits both physically and mentally, growing stronger each time they play. They develop a sense of confidence as they climb a tree a little higher or another child agrees to play with them when they ask. They learn patients and how to persevere in order to keep the game going. Through free play, children become flexible, resilient and capable. Free play lays the foundation for a successful working career and the development of long-term relationships as an adult.
Specific tips for fostering strong and capable kids
Not only is allowing children enough time to play important, but the quality of that time will determine the amount of developmental benefits they receive. The following are some basic tips on how to foster strong, healthy and capable kids:
- Allow adequate time every day for children to play outdoors
- Take frequent movement breaks throughout the day in classroom settings
- Allow children to move prior to going to school, such as helping with chores outside
- Let them play outdoors when they get home from school for at least a few hours
- Younger children don’t need to do organised sports or activities; they’ll get adequate exercise simply through play
- Invite children to come over and play with your children outdoors for the day. Your children are likely to be more independent in their play with friends around
- If you live in a neighbourhood with other children, let your children go and play with friends
- Let children take risks – even the youngest ones – such as jumping off a small rock or walking on the side of a kerb
- Instead of entertaining your children primarily through adult-led activities, inspire movement by using the environment (set up a rope swing outdoors, provide a bike and a basket). Let them take the lead on what they’d like to do
- Most importantly, give your children the gift of time to move and play every day!
In a nutshell
You don’t need to structure your children’s activity during recess or when they are home. Simply step back and allow them ample time to move and play outdoors or on their own. Your children will naturally create their own play opportunities and seek out the their own play opportunities and seek out the type and amount of movement they need – without the need for adult intervention. Active free play is critical for developing healthy bodies and minds. It allows children to develop creativity, independent thinking skills, confidence, emotion regulation skills, strength, and healthy sensory and immune systems.
Using the environment as inspiration
One way to inspire creative and independent play is by providing a rich and inspiring environment. Environments that offer varied elements, such as a stream to explore, muddy areas to get messy in, or woods to play in, enrich and stimulate children’s play in different ways. Here are just a few examples of how play can vary depending on the environment:
- Play near a stream. Streams can encourage children to build a dam, make a bridge to walk across, or create ‘boats’ to float down the stream
- Play at the beach. At the beach, children often test their hand at building sand castles or sculptures, playing at the water’s edge, or experiencing risk taking by swimming and diving into the waves
- Play in the woods. While playing in a wooded area, children may pick up large sticks to create a fort or little ones to build a fairy house
- Play near mud puddles. While playing near a mud puddle, children may seek out frogs to catch, create mud sculptures, try going barefoot, build a bridge, float items in the water, or throw objects into the puddle to make a big splash. They may even try mud slides – sliding into the puddles on their bellies
You can read more of Angela’s tips on outdoor play in ‘Balanced and Barefoot’. For more information visit www.newharbinger.com