Living in Canada we cherish the summer - the few short months when we can enjoy the beautiful country we live in without being bundled up. The patios are packed, the parks are full of children playing and all the campgrounds are booked.
As a mom with 3 young boys I love the question “Can we go outside to play?” My boys come in dirty, sweaty, with rosy cheeks and smiling faces. Often, I find a trail of sand, dirt, rocks or sticks following them. We go through buckets of “bubble juice” and have a stick basket at the front door. Bugs are often brought into the house to see if they need to go to the vet and houses are made for the many creatures that may pass through our yard. Gardens are tended to by little hands, while worms and caterpillars provide engaging conversations over who gets to carry them next.
All of this brings me joy as a parent. I love to see how they engage with each other and the nature around them. They each are attracted to different aspects during their play and they all learn from the others interests.
As a parent, I know that outdoor play is important for children. Fresh air is required for a healthy childhood - or at least that was what I was told when I resisted playing outside. So WHY is outdoor play so important? Why is it good for your child? How does it help with their development?
We learn by doing. Developmentally, this means that your brain is creating more connections as we complete a task then would be made if we are just told about the task. All of these connections allow us to use and retrieve this information later, showing increased memory, coordination, and improved fine and gross motor skills.
Going outside to play allows children to have a “mental break”. This time is a requirement for children to digest what they have been learning and try it on their own - in their own way and with their own ideas. Play is the perfect place for children to experiment, and try new things. This happens in all areas, not only physically but socially and cognitively as well.
Play occurs at different levels depending on the age of your child and the stage of development they are at.
3-9 month olds:
These little ones are focussed on sensory, social, language and physical development. They are learning to take part in the world around them. Having your little ones outside playing at this young age gives them the opportunity to hear new sounds, identify new scents, adjust their eyes to different intensities of light, as well as touch and crawl on different textures and much more. All of these activities, stimulate brain activity and create new pathways and connections in the brain.
10-14 month olds:
As children move from infants to toddlers they become little scientists, constantly experimenting with new textures, smells, tastes and more. They learn about “gentle” and start to build relationships. The concepts of taking turns begins as they start to discover social norms and order. It has been found that outdoor play can reduce stress and anxiety, increase joy and self-esteem. Outdoor play is an excellent way to improve motor skills, balance and flexibility. Children who play outside tend to be more inclusive with relationships, and improve attention and non-verbal skills. It has also been found that improved immunity and overall healthy can be attributed to outdoor play.
15-24 month olds:
At this stage children are working on creativity and imagination as they develop their minds and move beyond their feet to their hands. Children develop independence, discover how things work and begin to pretend play as they move through the world around them.
2-3.5 year olds:
As these active youngsters move they are learning through their senses: sight, touch, smell, sound and taste. The outdoors provides a whole new and exciting environment in which to discover. They experiment and begin to predict outcomes, like puddles will evaporate. With opportunities to go through, under, over and around they learn these concepts in context (providing more neural pathways) which also provide the beginnings of mathematics concepts like special awareness, volume, area, and geometry.
3.5-5 year olds:
Executive functions, social skills, coordination and independence are all developing as children grow through this stage. Play becomes a social experiment where children learn how to take in multiple viewpoints, determining what is fair and create games where there are multiple steps to follow. This stage of play looks like “just playing” but is a key component to your child’s future success in day to day activities and social environments.
As a parent in this age, we are constantly bombarded with information as to what our children should be “doing”, “playing” and “achieving”. Milestones are sought after like small trophies. We tend to hover and over encourage while focusing on the small wins, forgetting about the overall goal: happy, healthy, children who can function effectively in the world. Maybe this summer we can spend a bit more time watching our little ones discover on their own and letting them learn through play, failures and falls, rather than teaching them as they watch us show them how.
My parent challenge of the summer is to watch, support, and encourage your little one to discover, on their own, the great outdoors.
Written by Erin Yeung – Owner of Gymboree Play and Music – Educational Child Development programs for children 0-5 years old. Join us this summer as we take our classes outside. Book a free preview class at www.calgarygymboree.com.