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Why children need to play outside – now more than ever!

This article was originally published in the BC Aboriginal Child Care Society’s Caring for our Children Newsletter.

Thank you to Rachel Ramsden, PhD student, and Dr. Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor, from the School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia for providing this post.

“It’s too cold!” “It could be dangerous!” “It’s so much easier to stay inside!”

For many working in child care, it can be a struggle to make the time and take the initiative to spend time outside with the children. Even in BC’s gentle summer weather there can be many barriers to getting outside and these barriers increase when the weather turns cold. Children or educators may not have the right gear to be able to stay warm and dry, or educators might not feel equipped to support children’s play outside. Educators may be afraid that licensing officers will consider some outdoor activities a safety risk.

It can be tempting to avoid these issues and keep children indoors. But research shows just how important it is to make sure children get as much outdoor play time every day as possible. Outdoor play is not the same as indoor play and has unique benefits for children and educators. When we think back to our favourite childhood play memories, many of us were outdoors, playing with friends, making up the rules as we went along, and feeling like we could run and jump and shout in ways that weren’t allowed or possible indoors. It also provided an opportunity to learn about the land, including the many creatures and inhabitants, and how the plants changed with the seasons.

These kinds of experiences translate into really critical benefits for children’s health, development and well-being. When children are outdoors, they move more, sit less and play longer, helping increase their physical activity levels. And then physical activity leads to many health benefits for children’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. When children play outside, they can also enhance their mental well-being, developing their sense of self, and feeling soothed by nature. It can provide opportunities for learning that aren’t available indoors, including physical literacy and spatial knowledge. Importantly, navigating and nurturing nature, forests and green spaces provide children with the tools to learn environmental awareness, appreciation and stewardship. And when children are allowed to take risks and choose their own play outdoors, they gain confidence, resilience to overcome challenges, and skills to manage risks for themselves.

A common fear – especially in the winter – is that children will get sick when they go outside. However, children are actually more likely to be exposed to illness in poorly ventilated indoor environments. The outdoors benefit children by exposing them to Vitamin D and fresh air, which can ward off potential viruses. During the current global pandemic, the outdoors has been shown to reduce virus transmission.

While it may seem obvious that outdoor play is a good thing, opportunities to play outside are often limited. On those days where the rain is fiercely hitting the ground or we don’t have warm enough snow gear, it is easier to just stay indoors. But children learn from adult’s reactions to the weather, and if adults make comments about how miserable it is outside and choose to stay inside, children won’t want to go outside either. Adults are the ‘gatekeepers’ to getting children outside and the role models that can model a love of the outdoors in all weather.

Bringing More Outdoor Play into Child Care
There are three key ingredients to supporting outdoor play: Time, Space and Freedom.

Time: While the provincial child care licensing regulations may only require that children participate in outdoor active play for 60 minutes each day, educators can go beyond this minimum requirement. Spending more time outside and supporting rich play opportunities provides children with profound developmental benefits and a foundation for lifelong appreciation of the outdoors – in all weather. This can also benefit their families by demonstrating that it is safe, fun and accessible.

Educators may feel that there are many competing interests throughout the day that are more important than outdoor play. But many of these other priorities can be better met through outdoor play, such as opportunities for learning mathematical concepts, literacy, and socio-emotional competence. Think about how you can engage children with the outdoors throughout the day, either in small increments or by translating typical indoor activities to the outdoors. There is also a fine balance between scheduled activities and free time but it is crucial that plenty of time is allocated for free play. Consider participating with the children, supporting the play children have chosen with you there, or simply getting out of the way.

Space: High quality outdoor spaces offer children ever-changing conditions and loose parts that allow their imagination to shape play. Loose parts are materials that children can move around, such as sticks, rocks, mud, water, tarps, and crates. Fortunately, these are often easy to access and free. Supporting play in different weather conditions, such as the wind, rain or snow, will also allow children to get more comfortable on those non-sunny days.

We are blessed with many natural wonders in this province. With mountains, lakes and rivers, there are an abundance of outdoor play opportunities nearby. But even a small patch of nearby nature can offer wonderful play opportunities. Sticks can serve an infinite number of purposes – building shelter, stirring the latest mud pie, drawing in the sand. Foliage can provide shelter, a game of hide and seek or an imaginative house to play with friends. Trees can offer opportunities to climb, use gross motor skills and take risks. Slopes allow for tumbling and rolling or sliding. With the proper gear and an outdoor safety plan, colder weather can bring forward new and exciting opportunities to get children outside.

Freedom: Educators often shift their roles from educational to supervisory when outdoors, limiting children’s outdoor play choices because they’re afraid children will get hurt, and afraid other staff and parents may see them as neglectful if the children get bumps and bruises. Keeping children safe means letting them take risks. Serious injuries are extremely rare, while not supporting children in taking risks can mean they don’t develop the risk management skills to keep themselves safe. When given the chance, children show great skill in navigating challenging spaces and enjoying cold and wet weather. Avoiding overprotective supervision tendencies can be hard at first, but you can start with little steps like The Seventeen Second Rule: count to 17 the next time you want to say “be careful.”

By supporting children’s outdoor play this winter, you may just be surprised at how much you enjoy it and how it transforms your relationship with the children! Looking for more information and help in making the transition outdoors? Check out the Outside Play app for early childhood educators and for parents.

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Photo credit: Suraj Shakya courtesy of Unsplash