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Fresh Air & Fun: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Child Development

by Samantha Lewis

Photography by Seana Williamson

Nature brings out something in all of us. The way the wind feels through our hair, the warmth of the sun on our skin, the way the grass feels against our toes. All of this helps adults gain a certain sense of freedom we otherwise wouldn’t allow ourselves to inhabit. But what about children? Giving kids the chance to be outside allows them to not only run and play but to stretch their imaginations and their ability to learn.

The United Nations has stated that the ability to play is a human right for all children. This is not only because it is fun and fundamental, but because children learn from play. They learn social-emotional skills as well as cognitive thinking and hard skills. Taking that play outside increases the possibilities and ability of all children.

When stepping outside, the world becomes different. Sticks become firetrucks, rocks become fairy homes, a hill becomes a mountain, and a tree becomes a dragon. Through imaginative play, children can learn about the world and their place in it. When stepping outside without toys, one lets the kids’ imaginations take control and allows kids to explore themselves and the larger world. Imaginative play allows kids to try out scenarios alone or with other kids. When playing with other kids in an imaginative world, kids learn social-emotional skills, like the importance of working with others and group communication.

In my new book, Nature Activity Book for Little Ones, I wanted to explore how something as simple as walking outside can teach kids far more than expected. Walking through the woods puts kids in a situation where they have to make a hundred different decisions in a very short amount of time. Decisions like going around or through the puddle. Should I go under or over the fallen log? Having kids make these decisions helps develop their cognitive thinking skills and problem-solving skills, which grow over time into helping them become self-sufficient.

The outdoors can benefit everyone. Being outside and breathing in the fresh air while we move around can help children grow stronger and steadier. A child who learns how to walk on uneven ground can walk anywhere with confidence. A child who plays outside works their muscles in ways they may not when inside. They get to run, climb, jump, kick, roll, splash, and even fall without physical boundaries like walls. Grabbing a stick to hit against a log helps develop hand muscles, eventually helping to make pencil holding easier when they come of school age. They can build their muscles while developing their understanding of the world.

One way we all learn about the world is through one another. Especially when we are little. Kids learn by spending time with the adults in their lives. Some of your strongest memories from childhood are probably with adults from your life. Going outside and focusing on your child helps you create a bond that will make the memories last a lifetime.

The time you spend outside with one another is the time you spend growing your bond, strengthening your body, and helping each other’s minds grow beyond the expected. The world is vast, and like a goldfish, our minds grow with the space we give it. Spending time with one another outdoors lets us spread our wings and see the world for how big and beautiful it can be, while also letting us increase our love for those around us.