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Topic Commentary: Why Outdoor Play?

Mariana Brussoni, PhD

Department of Pediatrics, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, Canada; British Columbia Children’s Hospital Research Institute; British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit

May 2019

Introduction 

Play is a dominant activity of children’s lives in all cultures.1 Favourite play memories typically occur outside, particularly in natural settings.2-4 Adults reflecting on these experiences remember the sense of freedom and fun, a chance to be creative, develop physical confidence and social skills and an opportunity to connect with nature. These play memories and growing research in outdoor play draws attention to important ways that outdoor play differs from play occurring indoors.

While scholarship on play has a lengthy history, interest in outdoor play specifically has rapidly gained the interest of scholars across diverse fields, as they grapple with the importance and meaning of these experiences for children. Papers in this chapter summarize the latest research regarding the influence of outdoor play on development and learning, as well as the important ways that caregivers, educators, policy makers, communities and cities can support children’s play. Notable findings include the diverse and important benefits of outdoor play on children’s development, health, wellbeing, and potential benefits for families, early childhood centres, schools, communities, and cities that support regular and repeated access to high quality outdoor play opportunities.  

Research and Conclusions

Outdoor play is unstructured, freely chosen, intrinsically motivated play that takes place outside. It can often include risk taking and risky play.5 Authors in this chapter express concerns about patterns that suggest successive generational declines in children’s engagement in outdoor play, and discuss key reasons for the decline, such as adult risk aversion, an academic focus, diminishing availability and quality of outdoor spaces, limited accessible training for early childhood educators in outdoor play pedagogy, and a deficit in policies that adequately support children’s outdoor play in communities and early childhood centres.5-13 James, Dragon-Smith and Lahey6 also point to how the pervasiveness of Euro-Western approaches in Canada’s educational system have turned children away from play and the land, and towards controlled and regimented environments.  

Research highlights a clear relationship between time spent in outdoor play and children’s physical activity.7 In addition, research suggests the importance of regular and repeated exposure to high quality outdoor play opportunities for fostering creativity, socio-emotional learning, executive functioning, mental health, a sense of self, motor skills and risk negotiation skills, building the immune system, as well as providing an ideal venue for scientific enquiry.5-13 Benefits to the broader community have also been identified, including promoting children’s feelings of engagement with the world and sense of environmental stewardship.8-11  

The authors raised concerns regarding predominance of small scale and qualitative studies, with diverse methods and definitions of key concepts. These studies have provided a promising foundation for research on outdoor play and opened many avenues of enquiry. However, there is a need for systematic large-scale and longitudinal studies using universally acceptable measurement tools that would help identify causal links between outdoor play and children’s outcomes, as well as ways to support children with multiple needs, and in different cultural and geographic contexts, to access and engage in high quality outdoor play. Furthermore, our understanding of the role of technology, both as an inhibitor, as well as a potential facilitator of outdoor play is in its infancy. 

Implications for Development and Policy

The papers in this chapter list the many benefits associated with children’s regular and repeated access to high quality outdoor play opportunities.5-13  Gill9 suggests an urgency to the need for action and change, raising the spectre of collective generational amnesia as children who grew up with restricted outdoor play opportunities become parents themselves and view this as the norm. He also raises the rapid pace of development, particularly in low- and middle-income countries; the opportunities this provides, but also the potential threats if planning neglects children’s needs and does not prioritize provision of accessible and high quality and natural play spaces.  

James, Dragon-Smith and Lahey6 discuss the importance of learning from Indigenous perspective on outdoor play, which consider humans as part of nature and consider time spent playing and in nature as necessary to protect and to promote life-long learning. Acknowledging and honouring Indigenous philosophies and approaches, the “energy and medicines” of the land, Elders, and cultural families, can help provide a more holistic approach and children’s understanding of the ecosystem and their place within it.6 

The collective role of parents, educators, policy makers, communities and municipalities in supporting outdoor play is reflected in the key implications for development and policy:

  • Parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators: Consider children’s opportunities for regular and repeated outdoor play in varied natural and built outdoor environments. Strike a balance between scheduled activities, screen time and free time. Resist the urge to limit risky play. Recognize the importance of outdoor play in supporting children’s learning, development, health and wellbeing.5,8,12 
  • Post-secondary institutions: Provide early learning students, as well as educators already working in centres, with accessible training in outdoor play pedagogy. Support educators in understanding their role in outdoor play provision and developing a playful pedagogical approach.8 Embrace and integrate Indigenous philosophies and ways of knowing.6 
  • Policy makers: Develop policies that support regular and repeated access to high quality outdoor play opportunities in early learning programs.12 The current licensing and regulatory systems tend to be indoor-centric or focused on provision of fixed play equipment. Provide opportunities for licensing of outdoor programs. Incorporate evidence-based design guidelines for the outdoor environments of early childhood education centres, including the importance of access to nature and loose parts and risky play opportunities.5,13 Encourage daily outdoor time, regardless of the weather.7 Address risk aversion through implementation and support of risk benefit assessment frameworks.14  
  • Municipalities: Recognize the needs of children and their caregivers as central to masterplanning, and the importance of widely and equitably accessible outdoor play provision. Engage children in participatory design. Explore designs that limit the dominance of traffic and encourage multi-generational social encounters.9,11 

Children can and should be able to play throughout their communities. Addressing the barriers and creating a supportive culture and environment is a collective responsibility. Individuals, such as parents, and educators, and even children themselves, can make meaningful improvements in outdoor play opportunities. A collective approach that also involves institutions, governments, municipalities and the broader community would be exponentially more powerful in fostering lasting change and ensuring children’s equitable access to high quality outdoor play spaces and opportunities.  

References

  1. Hyun E. Culture and development in children’s play. In: Making sense of developmentally and culturally appropriate practice (dcap) in early childhood education. Hyun E, ed. New York: P. Lang; 1998:15-30.
  2. Singer DG, Singer JL, D’Agostino H, DeLong R. Children’s pastimes and play in sixteen nations: Is free-play declining? American Journal of Play. 2009;1(3):283-312.
  3. Brunelle S, Herrington S, Coghlan R, Brussoni M. Play worth remembering: Are playgrounds too safe? Child, Youth and Environments. 2016;26(1):17-36. doi:10.7721/chilyoutenvi.26.1.0017
  4. Ferrel Raymund J. From barnyards to backyards: an exploration through adult memories and children’s narratives in search of an ideal playscape. Children's Environment. 1995;12(3):362-380.
  5. Sandseter EBH, Kleppe R. Outdoor Risky Play. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/outdoor-risky-play. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  6. James VA, Dragon-Smith C, Lahey W. Indigenizing Outdoor Play. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/indigenizing-outdoor-play. Published May 2019. Accessed May 3, 2019.
  7. Carson V, Predy M. Active Outdoor Play. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/active-outdoor-play. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  8. Waters J, Rekers A. Young Children’s Outdoor Play-Based Learning. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/young-childrens-outdoor-play-based-learning. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  9. Gill T. Designing Cities for Outdoor Play. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/designing-cities-outdoor-play. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  10. Dietze B, Kashin D. Building Capacity to Support Outdoor Play in Early Childhood Education. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/building-capacity-support-outdoor-play-early-childhood-education. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  11. Cosco N, Moore R. Creating Inclusive Naturalized Outdoor Play Environments. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/creating-inclusive-naturalized-outdoor-play-environments. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  12. Wyver S. The Influence of Outdoor Play on Social and Cognitive Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/influence-outdoor-play-social-and-cognitive-development. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  13. Moore R, Cosco N. Early Childhood Outdoor Play and Learning Spaces (ECOPALS): Achieving Design Quality. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/early-childhood-outdoor-play-and-learning-spaces-ecopals-achieving. Published May 2019. Accessed May 2, 2019.
  14. Ball DJ, Gill T, Spiegal B. Managing risk in play provision: Implementation guide. London: Play Safety Forum; 2012. 

How to cite this article:

Brussoni M. Topic Commentary: Why Outdoor Play? In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Brussoni M, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/outdoor-play/according-experts/topic-commentary-why-outdoor-play. Published May 2019. Accessed December 8, 2019.