The Importance of Outdoor Play on the Development of Children

Outdoor play is crucial to children’s development, from building social skills to inspiring creativity.

In the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), outdoor play is defined as any type of play that takes place outdoors and benefits children’s development; this could be playing in a playground, a sports field, a forest, beach, or any type of outdoor space.

Research by the Real Play Coalition revealed that more than 90% of children wanted more play in their lives but are often too busy (or their parents are too busy) for unscheduled play.

Further research by the National Trust discovered that time spent outdoors declined by 50% in a generation. With the lure of digital devices, fears over stranger danger, and other safety concerns, time spent playing outdoors has been on the decline and children are missing out on all the benefits that go with it.

There are also barriers such as lack of access to safe outdoor space, and through winter the weather can prevent children from wanting to play outdoors or parents may not want to spend time outdoors in the cold.

These are the key benefits that children miss out on when they do not have outdoor play sessions:

Social interactions

Being outdoors on playgrounds, sharing equipment, waiting your turn, introducing yourself to a new playmate – these are all valuable life skills. Collaborating on outdoor projects help children to communicate with others and understand different perspectives.

Physical development

When children are outdoors, they are moving around more, exploring, running, jumping and chasing. All these movements and activities that are played outdoors help children to develop muscles and stamina and can help to maintain a healthy weight.

Children who spend more time indoors watching TV, playing video games or other sedentary activities are more likely to be an unhealthy weight due to lack of exercise. The NHS has revealed that obesity rates have increased significantly in children, with an increase in obesity rates of almost 5% from 2019-2021.

Mental health

There is also evidence that mental health problems in children have been increasing over the last few years. The NHS has shared that mental disorders in 6 to 16 years olds has increased from 1 in 9 to 1 in 6 children between 2017 and 2021.

Being outdoors in fresh air gives children a feeling of freedom, boosts self-confidence, and lowers stress levels. In natural environments, children are more able to enjoy effortless attention, compared to urban environments where directed attention is required, according to the Attention Restoration Theory. This means that children’s brains have time to rest and experience more pleasure and less fatigue when outdoors.

Stimulates creativity

Being in the natural environment also stimulates creativity, as children are in a less restricted space with new surroundings. Being in nature inspires children to be more curious and wonder about the world. Children experiment with imaginative play in the outdoor environment and can use natural items for art and crafts, such as flowers, leaves and sticks.

How do Gateways incorporate the outdoors?

At Gateways, children are able to participate in many outdoor activities and both the Nursery and Pre-Reception area have access to their own separate outdoor learning provision and make full use of the adventure playground, specifically created for under 5’s. In addition to this, children often explore the school grounds and enjoy regular visits to other outdoor learning areas, the planting area, and the sports field.

Our Reception children also have PE lessons with our Prep PE teachers. Sports skills taught include rugby, hockey, football, cricket, and athletics. Children also have an opportunity to take part in sessions with external specialist sports coaches throughout the year with a wide range of active extra-curricular clubs such as rugby, tennis, and dance. Our tennis classes encourage balance, agility, and coordination whilst helping to build each child’s self-confidence. A high standard of coaching is guaranteed, and with its unique equipment and quality coaching program on offer, the children will not just have fun, but have progressive coaching to improve their skills.

At Gateways we encourage outdoor play and outdoor activities with every year group. Our large play area is full of fun and inspiring equipment to encourage play, while we also have outdoor learning environments around the school. Our extra-curricular sports activities will often take place outdoors on the spacious sports fields or courts, with children enjoying a wide variety of outdoor clubs ranging from bushcraft to competitive team sports.

During the spring and summer months, we have running club in High School and younger children in the school make the most of the outdoor space for lessons or incorporate exploration activities outside.

Running throughout the year, Rugby tots introduces the basics of rugby. These fun, structured, playful sessions take children on a journey of sporting imagination with engaging and energetic coaches supporting them every step of the way. Children are introduced to catching, passing, kicking, running with the ball, and playing as part of a team.

How to encourage children to spend more time outdoors

It can be a challenge to encourage children to spend more time outdoors, especially if they say they are happy indoors. However, there are some ways to make it more appealing to them, even if it is cold or raining outside. For example, providing them with toys, games, or equipment to use outdoors rather than inside can encourage more time outdoors.

Bikes, trampolines, swings, slides, outdoor football goals, and basketball nets can all help to get children outdoors to play. Making time to do outdoor activities as a family is also important, such as going for a scenic walk, bike ride, or picnic.

While outdoor play is vital in children’s health and development, spending more time outdoors is great for adults too, so there are plenty of reasons to plan more outdoor activities together.

In order to get children outside, adults need to normalise being outdoors so that children will see it as part of their everyday life and not just something they do when family events happen, or friends come over. The more that being outdoors with your children is normalised, the more likely they will be to want to spend more time outdoors.