How outdoor play enhances early years development

Three children engaging in outdoor play while looking at insects in a jar

Young learners grow and develop beyond the four corners of the classroom. More learning happens when they’re not at their desks or confined indoors. Studies say that outdoor play helps early learners’ physical, cognitive and social development. Outdoor play provides opportunities for children to move and explore, as they’re encouraged to take on roles as discoverers, explorers, inventors, leaders and creators. 

Here are some of the many benefits children get from outdoor play: 

More physical activity 

Children today are not getting enough outdoor play. Gadget screens are more prevalent among children today than ever, as they play games, watch videos and surf the net. According to data shared by Bloomberg, 67% of children aged two to five spend too much time onscreen, going beyond recommended screen time guidelines. 

Parents, together with childcare providers, must work together to give children more outdoor play because it’s so beneficial to their physical development and health. Active play outdoors prevents weight-related issues. When children run, jump and climb, they use their energy to burn calories, train and strengthen muscles and increase endurance. 

Children engaging in outdoor play by taking turns crawling through a tunnel

Young children also enhance essential motor skills during outdoor activities. For example, a child learns sensory exploration when they play in a sand pit and how to balance when they swing on a rope or ride a seesaw. Experiencing an outdoor environment builds coordination, agility and dexterity. 

Better motor skills 

Children develop their gross motor skills at different rates, but there are activities that can influence this development. Motor skills are enhanced by outdoor activities, like running, ball games, red light-green light games, hopscotch, and more, as children move in ways that challenge their bones, muscles and endurance. 

And when children play in a sandbox, draw with chalk on concrete or dig for rocks and bugs in the dirt, they’re developing fine motor skills, which are small-muscle physical skills. These fine motor skills support activities that need precise movement, such as writing, grasping small objects and reaching for and manipulating objects. 

Emotional development 

The outdoors offers new situations to test a child’s skills and abilities, contributing positively to their emotional development. New and challenging circumstances help children develop a sense of independence and more self-confidence. Opportunities to take risks and accomplish new tasks can also grow a child’s self-awareness as they learn their personal capabilities. 

Children learn to understand boundaries when given the freedom to invent games and explore with friends, allowing them to grow emotionally. Studies say that children who spend more time playing outdoors tend to be more emotionally adjusted than those who don’t. 

Three children engaging in outdoor play by blowing bubbles

It’s also healthy for children to try and discover new things during unstructured outdoor play. Their failures and successes will result in a range of emotions, and while growing, self-reflection will become an integral part of this as they learn how to analyse their feelings and better control their emotions. 

Better social skills 

Young children can benefit from more opportunities for social development by playing outside. In outdoor spaces, like playgrounds, children can practice forming relationships without parental assistance. It’s common for children to meet new friends while playing in the park or playground, and they learn how to build genuine friendships. 

The outdoors also provides an opportunity for little ones to meet children from different backgrounds as they learn how to play and build camaraderie with other children. By interacting together in a safe and positive environment, children can develop an awareness of others’ feelings and emotions, encouraging healthy communication among peers. 

Later in life, these children will be more comfortable entering situations where they need to collaborate with various people. 

More creativity 

During outdoor play, children can use their surroundings to create their own imaginary world, fostering intellectual development and boosting creativity. Children engage the five senses when playing outside, which enhances their ability to process sensory information. This helps them become familiar with various sensory experiences and promotes more positive responses to these experiences. 

There are many ways to foster a child’s creativity outdoors. Consider walking through a natural trail, arranging a scavenger hunt or open-ended arts & crafts projects. 


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Patricia Podolig Donaldson

Marketing Content Specialist

Marketing and communications professional with over eight years of experience, writing about Xplor Childcare & Education’s comprehensive suite of products since 2021.