It seems like common knowledge that playing outside is good for children. The developmental benefits for unstructured play are not new or overly surprising, however, as time goes on, less and less time each day is spent playing outside. In fact, children spend an average of only four to seven minutes per day outside, compared to five to eight hours of screen time (computer, tv, phone, video games, etc.)! Not only is unstructured outside play being replaced with screen time, but also by organized sports and clubs. Gone are the days where kids explore endlessly outside just being kids; building forts, playing tag, and making up fantasy worlds to conquer, even when experts recommend that children should spend three hours each day outside. There are several benefits of play in the development of children. They can be broken down into three main categories: physical development, cognitive development, and social development.
One of the most obvious benefits of playing outside is the physical development of children. More physical activity generally leads to overall healthier children. By simply running, jumping, throwing, catching, pulling, pushing, and rolling around, the cardiovascular system is developed, while muscle growth and bone density is improved. Coordination and sensory skills are also further developed and sharpened. Playing outside results in children having healthier levels of vitamin D and sleep better than children who do not venture outdoors. In addition, children who play outside set themselves up for more active and healthier lifestyles as adults.
Perhaps the less obvious, but equally important developmental factor of children playing outside deals with their mental growth. Unstructured outdoor play prompts imagination and advances problem- solving skills. Exploration fulfills curiosity as new experiences and even appropriate risks turn into self-directed action and confidence. Play rules and strategies are learned, executed, and adapted. As children are required to entertain themselves during unstructured play, an increase in attention span is seen. This, in turn, also has a direct positive correlation with improved school performance.
To further the argument for outdoor playtime, there are a few social developmental benefits, as well. Communication skills are refined and conflict resolution is learned as children need to create, participate, officiate, and adapt their games and play. Immediate, real-life feedback is given to them from their peers in both verbal and non-verbal (gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, touch, etc.) forms. Friendships are born from shared experiences. And navigating the world of outdoor play with others, allows children to learn valuable skills such as sharing, turn-taking, and respect.
The Culture of Today
Unfortunately, unstructured play time has been replaced with more screen time and organized sports and clubs, and although each of these avenues provide certain elements of development, they eliminate others.
It has become overwhelmingly clear that the advancement of technology has fostered the culture of less movement and more screen time. Friends used to call one another by house phone or bang on the front door to see if they were free to play outside. Today, friends can message each other from their cellphones to “meet up” online to play Call of Duty and watch videos on YouTube of other people playing video games. It is said that a major part of communication these days for children is done online. Instead of physically being in the same room, children can put on a set of headphones and talk to one another while controlling an avatar in a virtual world. Although that would satisfy some aspects of social development, it’s pretty restricted. Non-verbal cues are non-existent and conflict resolution can be concluded with the switch of an off button. Not to mention, the limited physical movement in sitting in front of a screen, not developing coordination and sensory skills. And what about attention span development? Well with thousands of choices in videos, video games, and apps, children get to move on the second something bores them as opposed to learning discipline and stick-to-itiveness.
Organized Sports and Clubs
It is also pretty clear that unstructured play is being substituted with organized sports and clubs. While this organized play checks boxes in the physical, cognitive, and social development columns, they can lack some developmental factors that unstructured play can foster. Games, rules, and conflict resolution are dictated to participants in organized sports and clubs by adults, as opposed to being created and maintained by the participants in unstructured play. In today’s culture where everyone wants to get ahead, children are also at risk of developing physical deficiencies by too much specialized practice in organized sports. Instead of moving in different ways, reacting physically to different situations, organized sports generally require athletes to move in specific and repetitive patterns. In addition, there is the argument that participation in organized sports is parent driven and not always based on the interest of the child.
How Can We Mediate the Issue?
While increased screen time may be the new reality in the lives of children, it doesn’t have to overtake playing outside. Neither do organized sports or clubs. Parents and caregivers of children can set screen time limits whether it be by physically taking the tablet, phone, or game controllers away, to setting screen time limits directly on the device itself. Getting outdoors as a family encourages time spent together while being active. Hiking, bike riding, or a day raking leaves or doing community clean up are all active outdoor activities. In addition, coaches and facilitators of club and organized sports, can be sure their programs are developmentally appropriate to keep children engaged throughout their progress within the club or organization. Making practice fun will help encourage children to want to participate.
In an effort to foster exploration, self-discovery, and confidence in today’s youth, adults need to take a more active role in curbing screen time and encouraging time spent outdoors. The benefits of time spent outside are valuable both from a social and emotional perspective to the physical and mental development of children. Better school performance, sleep habits and problem-solving skills are all positive benefits of outdoor play. Organized sports, too have their place in developing an active lifestyle. Allowing children to choose what sports or activities interest them, may help to combat the pervasive sedentary lifestyle in today’s culture. There is no arguing that developing an active lifestyle will serve children well as they navigate life into adulthood. So put that technology down, grab a friend, and get outside to play!