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Effects of Outdoor Play on Child Development

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Published: Thu, 13 Jul 2017

The aim of this project is to explore the effect of outdoor play on children’s social, emotional and physical development. According to Bruce (2004) play is probably one of the least understood aspects of an early-childhood practitioner’s work (p.135). The conceptualisation of play is shared by many other early childhood practitioners for whom play is considered essential, as an activity promoting learning ………………………(p.135). Outdoor play is a much needed activity in the early childhood. You may have come across a child playing and you are sure he/she is having a fun time. Therefore, play is the building block of a child’s intellectual skills. Through play child develops social, emotional and physical skills. The outdoors according to Letter & Wyver (2008) presents obvious opportunities to move and be active, and for children to discover and engage with the natural environment, as well as the chance for open ended activities such as sand & water play, construction and pretend play.

According to Hutt et al (1989, p.10) “the emotional and social development of pre-school children depends crucially upon play” while Penn (2008) asserts that “to learn about child development is to learn about Piaget” (p.41). As Piaget focused on how children acquire knowledge, he tried to understand how children change the way they think, how babies show intense reactions to external stimuli them (Penn, 2008). Ibid (2008) asserts that it was Piaget who provided a theoretical legitimating of learning through play. In addition, Berk (2009), Keenan (2002) & Bruce (2004) are firm believers that children actively explore their environment and are influential in shaping their own knowledge. They believe that it was through social interaction with more experienced and more knowledgeable members of the society – parents, relatives, teachers, peers etc. that children are able to acquire the knowledge and skills that a culture deems to be important

According to Bruce (2004) there is no clear definition for play. It is still an umbrella world (Ibid, 1991), while other early childhood practitioners defined play as ‘child’s work.’ Play is primary way children express their social nature (Strickland et al, 2003). Ibid (2003) argued that all kids enjoy playing alone some of the time; while some prefer to play with others (social play) much of the time. Play is an integral part of learning. Piaget defined play as “a kind of scientific rehearsal” (Penn, 2008; p.43). While Bitton (2010) stated that play offers a meaningful context for children and that it is only when a situation has meaning and purpose that children can function at a higher level (p.49). Children’s emotions are ways in which they react to situations while social development refers to how they get alone with peers and form relationships (Ashiabi, 2007). Furthermore, emotional and social developments are linked because children’s social interactions are usually emotionally charged (Ibid, 2007).

To clearly explore the role of outdoor play on social, emotional and physical development. Strickland et al (2003) asserts that outdoor play is critical to the social development of 3-4 year old children, and to girls in particular when it comes to building self confidence (p.2). In addition, children learn to be more empathy and less egocentric through play and they develop more skills for coping with conflict while boys tend to engage in more social dramatic outdoor play than indoors; outdoor play allows boys who are more physical to assume leadership roles (Srickland, 2002) and perhaps get more positive affirmation than they do inside. White (2007) confirmed that when given the choice, the outdoors is where most children want to be and playing outdoors is preferable to indoors. In support of this argument, Eustice & Heald (1992) argued that outdoor play is an extension of classroom activities which summarises the beliefs of early year management that children learn best by exploring, investigating and solving problems outdoors (p.7). While Alfano (2010) asserts that playing outdoors is a form of exercise that promotes well-being and wholesome physical developments; and that children are naturally drawn to active play outdoors. One of the obvious benefits of getting kids outside to play is the increased exercise they will be getting as opposed to setting in front of the T.V. or computer.

Most early years scholars have also assert that when children play outdoors they are developing mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. This view is supported by Johnson et al (2002) that children gain lots of opportunities outside to develop basic social skills and social competencies e.g. running, jumping cycling, hide and seek, sing; sensing, make noise, make mess, crawl, and explore the natural world unchallenged. While Brice (2004) viewed that through play, children develop initiative and are strengthened to face challenges in life (p.134). More so, playing outdoors reduces stress in kids. Children express and work out emotional aspects of everyday experiences through unstructured play (Levesque. 2011). Whilst Strickland (2002) argued that there are also opportunities for emotional development as children test their limit and challenge themselves to try things that may be just at the edge of their reach

Moreover, most theorists found that pretend play outdoors was the most dominant form of play (Bulton, 2002). Perhaps that’s why theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky assert that pretend play provides children with opportunities to practice grown up and perspective talking (Ashiabi, 2007; p.2002). Also, in pretend play a child is always above his average age (Penn, 2008; p.44) and above their daily behaviour. In addition, Wyver & Little (2008) asserts that play also facilitates language development, creative thinking and problem-solving; and helps children deal with complex and competing emotions.

In view of the above statement, parents should allow their children play with other children because it helps in the emotional and social development. Although social and emotional benefits of outdoor play may not be in clear cut, one benefit from research is that it allows kids to move freely, make noise and self-express themselves in ways that many not be encouraging inside. Outside play encourages logical thinking and the ability to reason through highly interactive activities such as building sand-castles, playing games with friends, playing puzzles with friends etc. Time spent outside with peers helps to create social skills that are needed for great healthy friendship (Brouillette, 2010). While Froebal cited by Bruce (2004) stated that “play is the highest level of learning………………………………………….activities of the child” (p.132). While Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002) cited by Bruce (2004) shows that the richest play is found especially in nursery schools. According to Little & Wyver (2008) the significance of outdoor play as an essential part of every child’s life has also been acknowledged by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 supports a child’s right to rest and leisure, and to participate in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.

There are other reasons why playing outdoor is important for children, according to Stewart (2010) “when children play outside, they are more likely to maintain a healthy weight because they get the chance to burn off extra calories by running, jumping, climbing, riding bikes, yelling etc. which can also lead to better sleep.” Also, the above exercise help children to develop small and large muscles, strengthened bones, increases flexibility, fine and gross motor skills and improves their overall health (Ibid, 2010). In addition, outdoor play is important in early childhood because it helps in the physical development of the child as obesity is a common problem among children today (Pillar, 2010). Therefore, engaging in outdoor play helps in preventing childhood obesity.

More so, Vitamin D is essential for the skin and can only be derived by playing outdoors as it is impossible to get an adequate amount from food and vitamins alone. Getting kids outdoor increases the exposure to sun and their natural production of Vitamin D.

In contrary to the above advantages of outdoor play, White (2007) argued that today it seems that the motivation for children’s outdoor play has declined because global society is very busy in its day-to-day activities and over protected parents. Furthermore, many school age children have too much homework after school, therefore having less time for outdoor play. Whilst those without homework are too busy/lazy watching T.V, playing computer games, or pre-occupied chatting with friends on-line. Lastly, some parents are too busy with work and other activities (watching T.V, Football, cooking) to see to their children’s adequate outdoor play. Some parents are so paranoid that every man outside the street with big glasses/spectacles is a pervert or paedophile waiting to attack or abduct their children as they play outside.

Furthermore, social and environmental factors have greatly impacted on children’s opportunities for outdoors play. Little & Wyver (2008) asserts that where once children may have spent time playing in the street riding bicycle, playing chasing games, and hide & seek etc, increased traffic has made these areas and play opportunities off-limits for children as the changes are far too great. Children are now confined to classroom, backyards or local parks for relatively safe places to play. Also, Ibid (2008) stated that increase demand for housing in many areas, particularly urban areas, is eroding children’s play ground.

Lastly, according to Johnson et al (2005) providing for outdoor play needs for children is a complex and challenging task. A variety of factors must be considered, including the various play needs of young children, supervision, safety etc. while many educators, politicians, and parents believe outdoor play takes time away from academic activities; as a result, recess and physical education in many schools is limited or totally eradicated (Sutterby & Frost, 2002 cited by Johnson et al, 2005).


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