How The Outdoors Can Help Children’s Physical and Mental Development

86% of parents would like their kids to play outside more often, however, over half (57%) admit to being plagued by safety concerns, according to a survey by personal injury specialists, National Accident Helpline.

However outdoor play is key to child development so it’s important that children are allowed to safely explore the outside world. Fortunately, there are methods parents can use to allow their children to play outside while still keeping them safe from harm. In this blog, we’ll explain how the outdoors can help your child’s physical and mental development and offer our top tips on how to keep children safe when playing outside.

How outdoor play helps emotional development & why it’s important

Emotional development is how children learn to understand their own feelings and the emotions of others. It’s an essential skill for forming and maintaining relationships throughout our lives. Children who haven’t developed emotionally are more likely to lash out verbally or physically, causing distress to themselves or others.

Spending time outdoors playing can build a child’s self-esteem and help them to learn how to get along with others, take turns and share. In fact, regularly accompanying children on outdoor adventures is the backbone of building children's confidence from a young age, experts advise.

"One of the key messages we try to get across is that adults should regularly take kids out to their local woods, local beach or river," says Mike Murphy, Education Development Manager at the Sussex Wildlife Trust. “Over time, it becomes a safe place for the adult and the child, because you know where you can build a den, climb on a fallen tree or jump in a stream. The more you can negotiate that, the better equipped you are to deal with those situations."

Professor of Childhood Education at Trondheim's Queen Maud University College, Ellen Sandseter agrees. "When children are small, parents should come with the children, get used to that outdoor environment themselves. Join the children out in nature to experience the same thing. Then, bit by bit, let them get their freedom.”

How outdoor play helps physical development & why it’s important

Sensory play is any kind of play that engages a child’s senses. This includes the five main senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) along with two extra senses: balance (or vestibular) and proprioception (being aware of where your body is in relation to its environment.

Development psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that environmental stimulation was directly correlated to cognitive development. Sensory play encourages children to learn through exploration, which can help form and strengthen nerve connections in the brain. It also helps with motor skills as well as the development of language. Nature and the great outdoors provide a perfect setting for sensory play for all ages.

Setting boundaries for outdoor play

Of course, safety is vital when it comes to allowing our children to explore the outdoor world and many parents fear their children will wander off or get lost if allowed to roam. One way we can help reduce risk and still give children the freedom to play is to set clear boundaries.

According to Sandseter, it can help to agree on imaginary borders, such as a tree or a rock that marks the edge of where the child can play. “Talk to the children and explain why it's important for you to know where they are. Say: “You're allowed to play where you want, but don't go behind that tree or that stone or that lake,” she explains.

Murphy agrees that natural objects can help with orientation. “It can help to identify meeting points, like: ‘we'll meet you at the fallen tree,” he adds.

Supervising outdoor play

Younger children should always be supervised when playing outdoors for safety reasons but for older children, there are benefits to allowing them to play without direct supervision from parents. However, there are still steps you can take to make outdoor play safer.

  • Identify potential risks, like busy roads, for example, and put things in place to reduce the risk, like practising safe road crossing.
  • Familiarise yourself with your neighbourhood and warn your children about possible dangers.
  • Know who your child’s friends are and where their parents live.
  • Do a practice run where you walk along with them, pointing out possible hazards so that you’re there to help them troubleshoot.
  • Set clear boundaries about where they can go and what time they must be back home.
  • Ensure your child can recite their address and emergency contact numbers.
  • If your child is older, you can track them using their mobile phone or arrange for them to call to check in with you.


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