Outdoor Play and Child Development

May 28, 2018

As the summer approaches and the school year winds down, families are often looking for ways to engage their children. While it can often feel difficult in Macao to find opportunities outside to allow children to run, play and explore, it is beneficial to their overall development and worth the search. Not only is the time spent playing outdoors beneficial to the child, but adults also get valuable benefits for themselves.

Physical Benefits

The physical benefits for children when playing outside are numerous. They are developing their reflexes, balance and building stronger muscles. As well, their flexibility, bone density and gross motor development are improved. These developments of the body then lead into improved fine motor control such as holding a pencil or paintbrush and using a fork. Being active outside can also support a healthy lifestyle and encourage children to continue physical activity as they get older. This activity also supports improved sleep as well as heart and lung function. With the growing concern of obesity in our youth, the earlier we can help support a lifestyle of healthy eating and exercise, the more it can become a part of a child’s routines.

Social and Emotional Benefits

When we look at children in a playground or in a park, they are often navigating social relationships and building their emotional connections. Children build social networks by talking to each other on equipment, taking turns on slides and in games that encourages imaginative group play. These games provide children the opportunity to learn about social and cultural rules, cooperation and understanding of verbal cues and body language. The relationships and the learning that happen on the playground, translate to their lives at school and in the community. They learn self control and negotiation, as well as independence and acceptable group behaviour that will be needed for the rest of their lives as they interact with peers and adults.

The playground also affords children the opportunity for solitary play. Parents are often concerned if their child is playing alone, however this is a learning opportunity and a time of observation for a child. Children can observe others interacting and pick up social cues that they can later use when interacting with others. As well, a child learns how to use their creativity and imagination to self soothe and alleviate their own boredom rather than relying on others or devices. This free play allows the child to express emotions and handle their fears and anxieties in a safe way. As children grow, these emotions they develop in the playground change from developing emotional strength and stability, to spotinatey and humour.

Cognitive Benefits

While it may not be as apparent, outdoor play also provides important cognitive development for children. Open, unstructured play allows a child’s brain to recharge and reconnect. When children are allowed to play freely, they are able to think the way they want, create the stories and ideas driven by their imagination and be in control of their actions. The outdoor world also offers the opportunity for children to learn at their developmental level. For our youngest learners, exploring the world through their senses drives the majority of their learning. Being able to see, hear, touch, smell and even taste items in their environment, helps build connections and organizations information for later reference. They are able to see cause and effect, similarities and differences amongst objects and build their vocabulary as they move through their environment. Being able to listen to different environmental sounds and differentiate them is an important skill that is used later in literacy development. In contrast, similar experiences using only a screen based device allow for generally two sense to be used and can affect perceptual abilities.

Play also supports a child’s reasoning skills,independent thinking, problem solving and controlling their behaviour. They learn how to judge situations and think creatively about obstacles they encounter. As children, swing and move around the environment, they develop body awareness, perception of shape, depth and size as well as spatial awareness and orientation. When children engage in games, they are learning rules and strategy as well as meeting specific objectives. This dedicated time in an activity also promotes increased attention span and focus on tasks.

Importance of Risk

Risk and play is an issue that often gets the heart rate moving. However, supporting children to take age-appropriate, reasonable risks is important for a development. When we constantly rescue a child from a situation, we are sending the message that we don’t trust them, they aren’t capable and that we can/will fix everything for them. When we step back and take the role as an active encourager of a child’s play and attempt at a difficult challenge we send a message that we trust the child, we are there to support them and guide them through tough challenges and that the child can overcome obstacles and challenges on their own.

What is important to note, is that the play or activity does not need to be risky, but the child has to perceive the activity to have a sense of risk. This could mean climbing higher than they have before, going through a dark play tunnel, down the slide on their own or riding a bike at a speed that feels fast. One of the most thrilling experiences for a child is having the power to take full responsibility and the consequences of their actions. As we observe a child, we may recognize that they are carrying too much or that rolling down a bumpy hill that might be unpleasant, but allowing them to push themselves and develop the cause and effect relationship on their own is important for their development. When they overcome their challenge it also supports their self esteem and self confidence for future activities. Furthermore, it also allows them to judge risk more accurately in the future, and develops their persistence and learning abilities. We can be there in the background in case they need our support, but allowing this independent exploration is a thrill that children seek.

This summer, look at the available opportunities where you are to provide outdoor play to your child. Think about walks together as a family, a nature scavenger hunt or play in a park or playground. Providing these opportunities to our children not only supports their development but can lead them on happier, healthier lives.



Voice of Play. http://voiceofplay.org/benefits-of-play/

Edgar L. and Rheta A. Berkley. The Importance of Outdoor Play and Its Impact on Brain Development in Children. https://education.umkc.edu/download/berkley/The-Importance-of-Outdoor-Play-and-Its-Impact-on-Brain-Develpoment-in-Children.pdf

National Childbirth Trust.(2018). Importance of Outdoor Play Activities for Kids.


Ringo, Sophia. (2018, March 9). The Importance of Risky Play in Early Childhood.


Rosin, Hanna.(2014, April). The Overprotected Kid.


The Benefits of Risky Play. http://www.somerset.gov.uk/EasySiteWeb/GatewayLink.aspx?alId=43985


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