The Magic of Outdoor Play

By Sarah Shapiro, LCSW-C
School Consultant, Jewish Community Services

Where are the magical spaces of your childhood? Do your children have such a place?

Last spring, Meredith Jacobs posed these questions during one of her “Connecting Family” broadcasts on WYPR and it really got me thinking. Magical spaces are the places we go for peace and for play.

As a child, my magical space was the big rock in our front yard upon which my siblings and I and the neighborhood kids all climbed and alternatively pretended it was a mountain, a boat or a home. (In later years, when I returned to my childhood home, I was shocked to discover that our “big rock” was in reality not so large.) As an adult, my magical space is on a lake in Maine where I relaxed and swam in years past. I can go there in my mind whenever I need to de-stress.

Today the average American child spends more than eight hours a week in front of a screen, be it TV, computer, phone or gaming system. While our kids are adept at mastering virtual situations, their experiences in the real world of person-to-person contact are diminishing, as is their interaction with the natural world.

Meredith Jacobs talked about the documentary Play Again, which emphasizes the importance of engaging children in creative outdoor activity. The film follows six typical American teenagers on their first wilderness adventure and looks at the consequences of a childhood deprived of nature and the benefits of being in nature.

The outdoors provides children with amazing opportunities for unstructured play, an activity which, sadly, has declined in recent years as families have become overwhelmed with hectic schedules and focused on academic achievement. Play helps children develop physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively, especially when the activities are not overly structured by adults.

Through outdoor physical play, such as climbing trees, jumping rope, building snowmen or skipping stones, children “practice and master physical skills,” including muscle and motor development and coordination, says Rae Pica in Take It Outside! By burning calories and letting out energy, they are also less at risk for obesity and heart disease. Imaginative and inventive play, whether in a tree house or by a stream, promotes cognitive development.

Being outdoors gives kids opportunities to use all their senses, to run and yell, and even to get dirty. Outdoor play also nurtures children’s social and emotional development by providing opportunities for them to learn important social skills like taking turns, communicating, negotiating and sharing.

“They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making and organizational skills,” as well as initiative and competence,” says Pica.

Building in time for outdoor play is harder once the school year begins and the days start to get shorter, but it’s important for children’s physical and mental health. With many schools reducing or eliminating recess, children are spending more hours indoors.  So make time, either right after school or as a break during homework, for your child to unwind outdoors. Don’t forget about the weekends, too.

Throughout the year, remember to provide your child with plenty of opportunities to engage in spontaneous and voluntary outdoor play. Outside activities enable us to absorb fresh air, investigate plant and animal life and engage the imagination. Positive outdoor experiences in early life can help prepare children and whet their appetites for more challenging and independent outdoor experiences in adolescence and adulthood.

Familiarity with the outdoors will also help to ensure that our next generation is invested in protecting their environment so the great outdoors will remain full of magical spaces for years to come.

JCS professional child development experts can help with concerns about your child’s mental and emotional growth and well-being. Call 410-466-9200 or visit www.jcsbaltimore.org.

Watch the “Play Again” documentary>>

Check out these resources from Early Childhood News:
Hug a Tree and Other Things to Do Outdoors with Young Children, by Robert Rockwell, Robert Williams and Elizabeth Sherwood, Gryphon House, 1983
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Bharat Cornell, Ananda Press, 1982

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