Outdoor Play and Children’s Well-Being (Part 1)

Outdoor Play and Children’s Well-Being (Part 1)

Apart from academic learning, issues such as childhood myopia (a form of short-sightedness), watching too much television and over-reliance on IT gadgets (e.g. smartphones, tablets, etc.) are also parents’ key concerns.  In the midst of these concerns, parents often overlook the need for children, including very young children, to spend time outdoors.

This topic will explain to parents the importance of outdoor play for children’s learning and well-being, including some pointers about eye health.  Part I introduces the concept of outdoor play and the benefits of outdoor play.

It is hoped that parents will realise the power of outdoor play in reducing or negating the effects of electronic addiction and hothousing.

Concerns for children’s safety sometimes prevent parents from allowing children to play outdoors.  All outdoor play must be supervised and in a safe context, this is a prime pre-requisite.  However, children develop resilience through taking ‘safe risks’ within their physical capabilities and they, then, develop self-confidence.

There is carry over to learning when children are self-motivated and become problem solvers.  Outdoor play facilitates the development of these traits in children.

What is outdoor play?

Outdoor play is not about getting children to take up a particular sport or take part in a rigidly planned activity.  It is simply allowing children to spend time outdoors to play, in a way that is open-ended and self-directed.  The most basic form of outdoor play is playful physical activity, but it can also involve exploration and discovery.

Be it the nature environment or an outdoor playground, the outdoor environment offers young children an abundance of play and exploration opportunities, especially for unstructured play, something that is rapidly diminishing amongst today’s children.  As children are naturally inclined to explore their environment, a self-directed child can figure their own way out of boredom, be active and highly engaged in a passive environment (e.g. park, beach).

Delaying the Progression in Childhood Myopia (Short-Sightedness)

When children spend time outdoors, the sunlight triggers the release of a chemical in the eye which stops myopia from developing.  A study conducted by the Singapore Eye Research Institute suggested that the onset or progression of myopia can be delayed if children spend sufficient time outdoors[1].  Associate Professor Scott Read from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has recommended that children spend more than an hour and preferably at least two hours a day outdoors[2].

Recent research has found that the prevalence of myopia is not so much explained by genes, amount of reading or lack of physical activity, but the amount of time spent outdoors[3], that is exposing the eyes to sunlight and greater viewing distances (far distance vision). In other words, a child who does not go outdoors is more likely to become short-sighted, no matter how much they read.

Exploring Nature

Children learn through experiences. Unstructured nature-based explorations are extremely valuable in helping children to:

  • appreciate the forms of nature (e.g. colours of leaves, structure of spider webs, sounds of waves)
  • learn about the diversity of living things (plants, animals) in our natural environment
  • arouse interest and curiosity about nature
  • feel connected to the nature

Given the richness of the natural environment, it is best to keep things simple and meaningful learning will take place.  An elaborate playground or climbing structure may not necessarily be more engaging than looking at the White Egret by the canal.   Even the simplest things, a worm in the soil, can be fascinating to a small child.

When exploring nature, it is important to allow children the time and freedom to explore on their own.  Let them experience the real world – hear the sounds of rustling leaves or lapping waves, observe the cloud or shadows at different times of the day, etc.  It is often such self-directed exploration that allows children to have deep concentration and to make their own discoveries.  Even if they are not doing it the best way or make mistakes, it does not matter, because it is after all their learning experience.  Give them the chance to figure things out on their own.

Allowing children to connect with nature is one way of helping them to understand the world.  They need to be able to notice things around them before they can learn about them.  When children are active observers, the biodiversity in nature will arouse their curiosity, driving them to ask questions and learn about things.  Learning through exploration and discovery is the way that young children learn.

Also when children are able to experience and appreciate nature, they will naturally want to care for our environment.

Although most of the outdoor spaces in Singapore are artificially sculpted, there is still a rich diversity of flora and fauna worth exploring.  For example, the surroundings of a playground can also be a place of discovery for children to observe flowers and insects.

Why outdoor play?

Children who spend time outdoors are healthier physically, mentally and emotionally.  Being outdoors also provides ample opportunities for exploration and as a result, much learning occurs outdoors.  Through physical play, children naturally gravitate towards exploration when they are outdoors, and it brings benefits to their development.

Physical Health Benefits

Being outdoors gives children the space and freedom to practise a host of motor skills such as running, jumping, climbing, balancing, etc.  This helps to build their stamina, physical strength, as well as promote body awareness, motor coordination and physical growth.  All physical activities are coordinated through the brains and stimulate learning.

Outdoor play also supports the development of sensory integration as children experience and navigate different terrains (e.g. unpaved path, sand, mud, grass, slope, etc.).  They learn to coordinate their senses with their movements and practise controlling their muscles and joints as they vary their movements according to the surfaces.

Furthermore, spending time outdoors provides exposure to beneficial soil microbes which can help to strengthen children’s immune system and provide protection against allergies.

Mental Health Benefits

Being outdoors is a relaxing experience.  When children are outdoors, they are able to free their minds of IT gadgets, focus deeply on their task or activity and are kept away from constant stimulation.  This allows their brains to reset and recover from the mental overload and fatigue caused by frequent use of IT gadgets and/or the learning demands of a hectic class schedule.

Recent studies have suggested the restorative benefits of natural environments, which include restoring attention, reducing stress, depression and anxiety.  One study even showed that a walk in an urban park could improve the concentration level of children with attention deficits[4].

Learning Benefits

Apart from learning about nature and making sense of the real world, outdoor play also provides cognitive benefits such as:

  • developing thinking skills (asking questions, making predictions and reflecting about what they have observed)
  • developing problem-solving skills (when planning and executing tasks)
  • developing independence and resilience (when experiencing physical challenges)
  • developing perceptual judgement (when moving about the environment)
  • developing sustained attention (when focusing on their exploration)

In addition, nature promotes children’s imagination and creativity by providing a variety of sensory experiences.  Natural materials, such as pebbles, twigs and leaves, inspire and enhance imaginative play and creativity.  Such inspiration is somehow absent in the digital world.  Therefore, IT gadgets can never replace traditional forms of play.

Social Emotional Benefits

For many children, going outdoors is something they look forward to and it affects their levels of well-being.  They also enjoy playing with their friends outdoors, be it taking turns to use the playground equipment or simply chasing each other around.  Spending time outdoors with family or friends help children to bond with others.

The benefits of regular outdoor play and early, frequent exposure to natural environments are so powerful that it should not be replaced by other forms of play and/or learning.  We are fortunate that our urban city has been designed to support this with its many accessible green spaces, so parents, in spite of busy schedules, are encouraged to make time for outdoor activities and encourage their children to experience nature.

The strategies involved in outdoor play and suggestions on suitable outdoor play sites for children in Singapore will be covered in Part II of the topic.

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Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Wendy Toh 2017

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[1]Lai, L. (2016, 7 October).  Myopia at young age carries risk later.  The Straits Times, p. B1.  Retrieved from http://www.seri.com.sg/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/The-Straits-Times-071016-Myopia-at-young-age-carries-risk-later.pdf

[2]QUT (2016, 6 April).  Outdoor light has role in reducing short-sightedness in kids.  Retrieved from https://www.qut.edu.au/about/news/news?news-id=103243

[3]Dolgin , E. (2015, 19 March).  The myopia boom.  Nature, 519 (7543), 276–278.  Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/the-myopia-boom-1.17120

[4]Taylor, A. F. & Kuo, F. E., (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12(5), 402-409.