When I was kid I was a tomboy. I had two best friends — boys that both lived on my street — with whom I spent my days outside riding bikes, digging for worms, climbing trees, and exploring the woods adjacent to our neighborhood. Despite the skinned knees and dirty fingernails I came home with (and besides the fact that I would be gone from home for several hours at a time), those days I spent outside taught me valuable lessons that I carried with me into adulthood.
Today things are different. Kids are rarely left to have fun on their own, especially outside, and groups of children are no longer far from their parents’ watchful eyes. Many kids don’t get enough time to enjoy and benefit from the important developmental skills that can be learned through unstructured outside play.
According to The Genius of Play, an initiative spearheaded by The Toy Association to raise awareness with parents, caregivers, and educators about the importance of play, outdoor play is necessary for healthy child development and here’s why:
Active play is critical for kids’ physical development. Research has shown that physically active kids tend to be leaner and healthier, while an inactive childhood can lead to a sedentary (and likely unhealthy) lifestyle in adulthood. In addition, studies have found that kids with higher levels of fitness score better on standardized tests.
Kids also need physical play to develop their gross and fine motor skills. Hanging from the monkey bars, for instance, helps kids develop the necessary hand muscles needed to grip a pencil. By the time they reach kindergarten, children need to know how to sit properly in a chair for extended periods of time in order to do activities such as coloring, drawing or writing — to do that they need to have good core muscle strength. Activities like running, jumping, rolling, climbing, skipping, galloping, and leaping build strength, balance, and coordination.
Learning How to Take Risks
When I was 10 my dad bought me a pair of rollerblades for my birthday. I was ecstatic. The only problem was, I was terrified of the big hill that was smack dab in the center of my neighborhood. For weeks I would avoid the hill, finding alternative routes, until one day I gathered up the courage to go up the hill, and then down the hill — making it down in one piece. The sense of accomplishment I felt after facing my fear did wonders for my confidence.
This may seem counterintuitive to today’s style of helicopter parenting, but children need to practice taking risks. They need to learn that it is ok to step out of their comfort zones — whether they are successful or not. As adults, don’t we do that all the time in our own careers? How else will kids build up their confidence to face life’s inevitable challenges? Whether kids are learning to go down a slide or riding a bike without training wheels, outdoor play is a great opportunity for them to try new things, push their boundaries, and take risks — without being directed by their parents.
Social and Communication Skills
“Red Rover,” or “Red Light, Green Light,” and other childhood games build social skills by teaching kids to communicate with others and follow directions (with consequences if the rules of the game aren’t followed or if they are “caught”). As a kid I often played “Marco Polo” with my friends during pool time, and while I was calling “Marco!” with my eyes closed, I was also learning to listen to others to figure out where they were located.
Finding Solutions to Challenges
Children’s imaginations are often stimulated by the objects around them and being outside can offer a host of inspiration to get kids tapping into their creativity — and learning how to come up with solutions to challenges in their own way — such as learning how to build a sandcastle or figuring out how to climb up a jungle gym.
My favorite outdoor activity as a child was to be on the swings. I loved the thrill I felt as I pumped myself higher and higher, and the sense of freedom I felt as I soared through the air on the way back down. In that moment nothing could be more important or exciting to me. The ability to relax and enjoy the simplicity of swinging is an example of how being outside can act as an endorphin in kids — lowering stress levels and reducing anxiety and depression.
Even more so, research has found that actually touching dirt whether by making mud pies, gardening, digging for worms, etc., has a positive effect on children. According to a white paper by the National Wildlife Federation, which cites a 2007 study by Bristol University, certain types of “friendly” bacteria found in soil have been found to activate the group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, which contributes to a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. Playing with dirt — literally — has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning, the paper noted.
So with summer upon us, go ahead and let your kids play in the dirt. In fact, maybe we all should get a little dirty.
Anna Yudina is the director of marketing initiatives for The Toy Association™, a not-for-profit trade association that represents toy companies. Currently, she’s spearheading The Genius of Play™, a parent-focused movement raising awareness of play as a crucial part of child development and encouraging families to make time for play daily.