little boy crawling across playground steppers

The Importance of Outdoor Play for Early Learners

Most adults remember their school recess times with fondness. These opportunities to leave the constraints of the classroom behind and set out for another playground adventure are memories you cherish forever. However, today’s children are overwhelmed with an abundance of activities and few opportunities to enjoy playgrounds with other children. Video games and TV, after-school activities, and the concentration on academics over playtime have led to many playgrounds disappearing from our kids’ play landscape.

Despite having packed schedules, kids need to play freely, and playgrounds are the perfect place to engage in unstructured play. Playgrounds are crucial for children’s development because children develop skills through play and exploration. The first five years of life are an especially critical time for brain development and forming the foundation for future learning and behavior, which is why free outdoor play is a necessary component in fostering growth.

In this post, we will explore the numerous benefits of outdoor learning in the early years, and why every child needs outdoor playtime every day.’

Read the full article or jump to a specific section:

What are the Benefits of Outdoor Play in Early Years?

When a child plays outside at the playground, they get to explore their physical capabilities in new ways without the restrictions of indoor play. They can sing, jump, skip, climb and enjoy the simple pleasures of being a child without the distractions of TV or computers. As they have fun and play, they’ll learn a lot about other children, themselves, and the world around them.

Experts in a variety of fields, including psychology, biology, health, and education, have proven the importance of parks and playgrounds. A multitude of studies on the concept of childhood play all confirm the same critical fact — play is an essential aspect of learning. Here’s an overview of the reasons kids need to play.

  • Mastering new skills: When children play outside, they learn what they’re physically capable of, and they develop the confidence to repeat activities until they become masters. For example, a young child can learn how to climb by using age-appropriate climbing equipment at a playground. Once they make it to the top, they’ll have confidence in their ability to climb, and they will be ready to develop coordination and strength further. On the other hand, if a child stays indoors all the time, they might not have the means to climb safely and build physical skills through repetition.
  • Social interactions: When kids play outside with other children, they get to interact in an unstructured environment. These interactions give them the chance to learn, make discoveries and share their newfound knowledge with other children. Many times, children do not have the opportunity to play with different groups of children when they are stuck indoors and are, therefore, limited in what they can learn about social behavior.
  • Learning a variety of skills: The outdoor environment offers unique ways to build different skills, and many of these educational opportunities don’t exist indoors. For example, a child might practice stacking building blocks on uneven ground outside, or pushing a toy car through the grass. When children play outside, they learn how to solve problems as they explore an environment that’s filled with ever-changing sounds, sights, and textures.
  • Using their imagination: Children can set their imagination free when they play outside and have fun without the need for various toys or electronics. An outdoor play area makes an excellent setting for playing make-believe, for example, and allows children to build creativity and social skills. For instance, a child could pretend a tree is a giant in their magical world, and act out an entire story without needing anything else but their imagination and a playmate.

A child’s curiosity is the only fuel they need to play. As a child grows, their play becomes more complex. Children who lack exposure to play may end up having a stunted ability to develop and learn. Just as eating and sleeping are essential to a child’s health, so too is play.

View Early Childhood Playground Equipment

The Benefits and Importance of Outdoor Play in Early Childhood

Do you remember spending days playing in the sunshine and fresh air with friends? For many people, playing outside as a child created some of the best memories of their lives. Today, too many children spend their days cooped up inside in front of a screen. According to Sanford Health, children devote an average of four to seven minutes a day to unstructured play, while they spend over seven hours with electronic media. If children spend their childhood indoors, they will miss numerous opportunities to grow fully, create special childhood memories, and ultimately enjoy healthy lifestyles.

It’s not too late for children to get up and get outside with the support and encouragement of teachers, parents, and the community at large. Here are just some benefits of playgrounds and learning outside.

Benefits of outdoor play for early learners

1. Provides Physical Benefits

When you watch children on a playground, you’ll soon see that although they’re having fun, they’re also getting a workout. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend children should have at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day — and the playground is the perfect place to get this done. Plus, when kids get into the habit of exercising and see it as an enjoyable experience, it encourages them to remain active as they get older. There are dozens of physical benefits to playing outside, including the following.

  • Builds motor skills: Young children need stimulation and practice to develop motor skills and endurance. For example, a 3-year-old child can typically hop on one foot briefly. By the time they are 5 years old, they should be able to stay balanced on one foot with their eyes closed. To get from point A to point B, a child needs to build balancing skills, which they are freer to practice and improve outside. A child will also feel more motivated to develop motor skills when it’s a fun experience. For example, at the playground, a child will build strength and endurance as they climb, slide, swing, push and pull — all while having a great time.
  • Burns calories: According to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity is 13.4% in kids aged 2 to 5 in the U.S. Children who are overweight or obese are much more likely to become obese adults and are at risk of developing health issues related to obesity. One way to tackle childhood obesity is to encourage children to get outside to move around and have fun burning calories. Young children, in particular, require a lot of activity to stay in shape. For example, preschoolers should get at least an hour of structured physical activity, and at least an hour, or up to several hours, of unstructured activity every day. Although children can get some exercise indoors, nothing beats active outdoor play.

  • Develops stronger bones: According to an American Academy of Pediatrics report, there’s a severe vitamin D deficiency among children in the United States and other countries. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium from food and build strong bones. Just a few minutes of sunshine a day can help the body make adequate vitamin D — another reason why we have playgrounds.
  • Builds immunity: Sunlight stimulates the pineal gland, which keeps the immune system strong. As mentioned above, sunshine also helps children produce the vitamin D they need for proper immune system functioning. Outdoor playtime also supports the immune system with fresh air and soil. When a child plays outside in the fresh air, they take a break from being indoors with trapped germs. Interaction with natural elements like soil also helps build immunity.
  • Improves sleep: Far too many children suffer from sleep deprivation and do not get the recommended amount of sleep every day. Busy schedules, too much screen time, and lack of knowledge are a few reasons many children aren’t getting enough sleep. Fortunately, playing outside can help children get the sleep they need, which ranges from 10 to 12 hours per night for 3- to 6-year-olds. When children play outside, they gain exposure to sunlight, which helps regulate the body’s internal clock. They can also enjoy the calming effects of spending time in nature and burn energy, so they feel more tired when it’s time for bed.

2. Offers Social Benefits

Playing at the playground is generally not a solitary activity. Whenever you visit a playground, there are bound to be other kids there. When children meet other kids on the playground, it teaches them important lessons about social norms and how to interact with others, all of which will come in handy in adult relationships and their future workplace.

Also, when children play outdoors, they are freer to be themselves and explore the world around them. They get to let their personalities shine in ways indoor areas do not allow, and they may feel inspired to make friends. Here are a few more social benefits of outdoor play.

  • Teaches social skills: Young children need to learn how to play well with other children. Four-year-old children, for example, cannot yet understand right and wrong. They must learn how to share, cooperate and treat other children kindly. Children can’t learn everything they need to know about socializing in a structured environment. They require new and different social situations to build social skills. Parents and teachers should encourage children to play and share at this age, and playing outdoors is the perfect space for learning.
  • Teaches the value of diversity: When a parent takes their child to an outdoor playground, the child gets to play with children they wouldn’t otherwise meet in school, daycare, or home alone. They benefit from exposure to different backgrounds, viewpoints, and personalities. As children play with new friends in an outdoor environment, they can learn to accept and appreciate differences. They can also learn from other children and how they play and interact with the world.

  • Improves communication skills: Children have to practice communicating positively and productively when they play outside to reach common goals. In an unstructured outdoor environment like the tot tree, it’s up to them to make up the rules. As a result, children learn to listen, plan and share knowledge with other children so they can continue having fun.
  • Helps children develop empathy: When children play outside, it puts them in a variety of circumstances that allow them to practice empathy and become more aware of other children’s feelings. Playing various games and roles also teaches children self-control and ways to resolve conflict. As children engage in free, unstructured play, they try on different perspectives and test a range of emotions so they can ultimately relate better to others.

3. Has an Emotional Impact

The physical and social benefits of play are more obvious. However, there are also subtle emotional changes in your child’s well-being that may not be as recognizable, yet are still vitally important.

Physical activity and unstructured playtime on a playground help children address their feelings and reduce stress. Play distracts kids from their problems, and outdoor activities produce happiness as a natural byproduct.

Children experience many other positive emotional impacts when they have the freedom to play on a playground. Playtime benefits children because it:

  • Boosts self-confidence and self-esteem as they master challenging playground structures
  • Allows them to retain a sense of control unavailable in many other parts of their lives
  • Lowers tendencies to misbehave or bully, as playing diverts kids’ attention with more positive activities
  • Teaches them how to deal with challenges in a healthy way

4. Boosts Imagination and Creativity

Kids do more than slide, swing, and climb when on a playground. Keep an ear open to the conversations, and you’ll realize a variety of other make-believe games are taking place. Imaginary play is a given whenever kids are on the playground.

When children use their imagination and play make-believe, it teaches them social roles and helps them develop creativity. Creativity is a valuable skill a child can use throughout their life to come up with solutions and new ideas, and it’s a skill worth developing early on. Also, there are several childhood benefits of using the imagination. Children who use their imagination tend to have the following tendencies:

  • Happier: Children who develop their imagination can entertain themselves and are less likely to feel bored. Also, playing make-believe helps children express and process their emotions in a healthy way.
  • Better playmates: Children who use their imagination are more able to imagine how others feel, and therefore, may be more sensitive to the needs of other children.
  • Better problem-solvers: When children practice using their imagination and build their creativity, they become better problem-solvers. Being able to imagine solutions to difficult problems will help children succeed in school, relationships, and life in general. They also have a greater capacity for cognitive flexibility, which means they can come up with various solutions to a single problem.

For children to use their imagination and develop creativity, they need time and space to explore their curiosity and amuse themselves. For this reason, parents and teachers should limit screen time and encourage children to play outdoors without any structured activities planned.

5. Teaches About the World and Nature

Children need to get outside to enjoy nature’s many treasures, such as greenery, sunshine, and fresh air. Playing outside surrounded by grass and trees provides a happiness boost, as well as opportunities to have meaningful interactions with the natural world. Also, exploring the natural environment requires physical activity, so kids can learn about the world while they get exercise. Here are more reasons children should head outdoors to connect with nature:

  • There are endless learning opportunities: Plenty of outdoor learning activities for the early years don’t require extra materials. All parents or teachers need to do to teach a young child something new is ask them to point out what they see in the sky and their surroundings, or look at insects on the ground and talk about where they live and what they eat. Or you can discuss plants and how they grow, or how the seasons change. Playing outside provides numerous ways to offer kids hands-on lessons about the natural environment. It’s much more effective and fun to learn how flowers smell or how mud feels in the real world rather than talking about it indoors.
  • Children can discover their relationship with the world: Children learn about how they fit into the natural world when they play outside. For example, they discover how to roll on the grass or how to use gravity to swing high in the sky. They also get to appreciate how the world provides for them and supplies them with flowers, fruits, vegetables, and shade. They learn how to be aware of dangers in the natural world, like thorns or heat from the sun. Children can only develop a relationship with nature by experiencing it firsthand.
  • Children will enjoy nature as adults: Children who learn to appreciate the outdoors and nature at a young age are more likely to enjoy activities in nature as adults. For example, children who develop a love of the outdoors early in life may be interested in hiking, gardening, or biking when they are older. These activities can help them enjoy healthy lifestyles and stay mentally and physically fit. When a child appreciates nature, they are also more likely to respect the planet and understand the importance of conservation.
  • Time in nature reduces stress: Anyone can experience stress, including young children. For example, a preschooler might experience stress and anxiety if their parents are getting divorced, or if they see a scary news story on the TV. However, there are simple ways to reduce the effects of stressful life events, whatever your age. According to the American Heart Association, getting outside reduces stress. Just a view of greenery like trees and grass can reduce stress and boost mood.
  • Nature stimulates the senses: It’s hard to replicate the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. The natural world is always changing and stimulating the senses in new ways. From the sound of birds chirping in the spring to the way fresh snow glistens in the sun, the outdoors provides an enriching environment for learning, playing and sensory stimulation. When children exercise their senses and learn to recognize and appreciate different smells, sights, and sounds, they develop a greater awareness of their surroundings and may enjoy a richer life experience.
  • Learning about nature helps build language skills: When children play outside and learn about the natural world, they also expand their vocabulary. They can pick up tons of new words as they learn about science, ecology, weather, and more. They’ll also be more likely to remember what they learn because it will all be part of a memorable adventure.

6. Makes Education More Fun

When a school holds recess on a playground, kids get to take short breaks, which allow for freedom and fun. As a result, the educational experience is much more enjoyable and less something to dread. Researchers now understand school playgrounds have an essential impact on a child’s ability to learn and develop.

Opportunities for play also have an effect on children’s attendance rate at the primary school level. When a child knows there will be opportunities to let loose, they often find it easier to listen and learn in the classroom environment, and they may even look forward to going to school.

Overall, playgrounds are important to have at schools because when unstructured play is part of their daily schedule, children perform better socially and cognitively.

7. Enhances Self-Awareness

Parents and teachers can enable kids to grow their self-awareness as they develop more independence on the playground. Children who play outside benefit from learning about spatial and directional awareness and how they interact with the world around them. This helps them become more observant and aware of their movements and can help them adapt to new environments as they conquer play equipment.

This self-awareness also helps them use reasoning and observational skills to take calculated risks as they grow bigger and stronger. The playground is an excellent place for kids to embrace their bravery and confidence under supervision as they try to master the swing or spinner on their own. The more they play outside, the more they learn about their own abilities and discover what they’re capable of, such as how high they can climb or how well they can balance.

With an outdoor playground, kids can try to accomplish their goals and surpass their abilities while having fun and developing other skills. As they engage with others and create imaginative concepts, they also learn to be more aware of their behaviors, thoughts, and actions. Studies show that self-awareness helps with personal skills and development, which is beneficial for kids as they learn to identify their strengths and weaknesses in a healthy environment.

8. Promotes STEM Learning

One of the most important things kids can learn on an outdoor playground is STEM — or science, technology, engineering, and math — concepts. While playing outside can help with learning in general, STEM learning focuses on higher-level thinking and problem solving by experimenting and asking questions.

On an outdoor playground, kids can get hands-on experiences that incorporate STEM components and learn how to communicate, collaborate, and use critical thinking skills to understand how things work. In this setting, kids can benefit from exploration and freedom to learn new concepts in a fun environment.

Adults can help kids play with sand, water, plants, grass, and other natural elements to make investigations and come to conclusions about the outside world. These interactive activities can also help kids grasp more information in the classroom as they learn to associate new ideas with materials they use outdoors.

Here are some additional ways you can promote STEM learning during outdoor playtime:

  • Collect and compare different colors of leaves
  • Experiment with water buoyancy on an outdoor water table
  • Find and identify three different examples of life forms
  • Hide different color balls around the playground and sort them into matching colors
  • Display the concepts of motion, gravity, and cause-and-effect on the swing
  • Explore gross motor skills and balance on a balance beam
  • Identify how your shadows change with the changing light at different times of the day

How to Encourage Outdoor Play

Parents and teachers can help young children make the most of outdoor playtime by encouraging different types of play. Although children still need time to play independently and come up with their own games and activities, they can also use guidance sometimes to get on the right developmental path. Parents and teachers might encourage the following types of play:

  • Physical play: Parents and teachers can encourage children to develop motor skills and strength at the playground by encouraging them to use climbers, swings, steps, tunnels, and slides. By motivating a child to use a variety of equipment, you can help them build a range of physical skills and support brain development at the same time.
  • Constructive play: Young children enjoy constructive play and working with blocks, sand, or other natural materials. There are many places at the playground for a child to engage in constructive play and learn about stacking, building, and how things fit together. By encouraging constructive play, you can help a child develop problem-solving skills, creativity, and fine motor skills.

  • Social play: Parents and teachers can encourage children to work on social skills by interacting with other children at the park. For example, a parent might teach their child how to push their sibling in a swing or share toys with a friend in the sandbox.
  • Dramatic play: Parents can take children to playgrounds that offer opportunities for dramatic play. A quality playground provides forts and other structures children can use to build their imaginations and act out dramatic stories.
  • Games: In a park, field, or yard, parents and teachers can encourage children to play classic games like follow-the-leader. That way, kids can enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and soft grass while learning and having fun. Games motivate children to listen closely and pay attention and teach them how to handle winning as well as losing.

Contact Little Tikes Commercial to Learn About Our High-Quality Playground Equipment

browse our products

Imagine what childhood would be like stuck in the house without laughing, climbing, swinging, and playing outside. Outdoor playtime is what makes childhood special, and helps us grow during the most critical developmental period in our lives. With too many children spending far too much time inside, teachers and parents need to find ways to encourage children to put down their electronic devices and head outdoors — whether they are 3 years old or 12.

At Little Tikes Commercial, we make it easy to get kids excited to play and embrace the Magic Outside. For decades, we’ve encouraged children to explore their world and learn fundamental lessons through adventure and imagination. Our inclusive, vibrant playground structures foster growth and creativity for all children. We also offer custom capabilities to help you create a playground you’re sure your community will love.

Whether you’re looking to replace the playground at your school or want to add some play structures to your community park, we’re committed to delivering innovative designs to promote the value of parks and outdoor play. To learn more about our playground equipment and structures, contact us today or request a quote!