Benefits of outdoor play for learning and development

The importance of outdoor play in learning and development

Most days after school, if it’s dry enough, we stay and let the children play for a bit before heading home.

They play in the school yard which has a brilliant wooden fort and little obstacle course which is fantastic for them to burn off some steam after a day at school. The outdoor space and facilities are great at our school, and there is quite an emphasis on outdoor play and learning there that I really love.  The children are encouraged to get out and get stuck in and often come home muddy and dishevelled.

The school is really on to something with this I think, because there are all sorts of benefits to outdoor play in terms of our children’s learning and development.

The importance of outdoor play in learning and development


Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said “Play is the work of childhood” and that is a sentiment that I really love.

Mr Rogers actually took this idea a bit further when he said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”


The thing is, children aren’t built to sit still and focus on learning.  Apparently up until they’re at least 9 years old children learn best when their whole self is involved in the process.  So sitting at a table and listening to a teacher talk isn’t going to help them learn as much as actively getting involved in something.


Young children in particular learn best through play.

When they’re playing they’re learning how to solve problems and they’re being creative and experimenting in all sorts of ways.  Play does so much to support our children’s cognitive development.  It’s through play that they learn skills like understanding and communication, as well as things like risk assessment and cause and effect.


What seems to be really important though is that the play needs to be unstructured.

Children don’t learn in the same way if adults are directing their play.  They need to be left to explore and play the way they want to play to really get the benefits.

This is one of the things I love about the play equipment at our school – it’s not obvious what each piece should be used for.

There are quite a few wooden structures that can be a fort, a stage, a family home, or whatever else the children can come up.  There are also shapes and tracks and games painted on the ground too which are brilliant for creative play and learning.

ESP play produce all sorts of play equipment and playground markings like the ones our school has, and have spent a lot of time researching the benefits of them.  If you pop over to ESP play’s website you can see their findings into the effects that outdoor creative play can have.  They have playground equipment for all ages from pieces suitable for early years play all the way up to secondary school.

They recognise findings from various studies that show that children need this kind of play environment where they aren’t restricted in the way they play.

So the children are free to come up with their own ideas and use the equipment creatively.  When children have this freedom to make up their own games, either by themselves or with other children, they learn so much.

Imaginative play outdoors

They learn to figure things out on their own, to communicate better and to negotiate.  These types of skills are known as executive function skills and they’re so important for our children’s development.

Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, explains that the best way for children to learn is through free-play.  He says:

“No coaches, no umpires, no rule books…Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?”

When children play in this way new pathways and circuits are built in the prefrontal cortex that help them navigate these different social situations.  So playing actually creates changes in our children’s brains, wiring up its executive control centre, to set them up to be able to handle these complex situations in the future.


One big developmental benefit to outdoor play that us parents can sometimes find a bit hard to cope with, is the way it teaches our children about risk and about their own personal limits.

Our instinct as parents is to keep our children safe and to protect them from any possible harm.  But if we constantly hover around them while they play, shouting pleas for them to be careful, they’ll grow up scared to ever take risks or push themselves to see what they’re capable of.

When we take a step back and let our children climb that tree or try a new way of getting down the slide they learn so much.

They develop risk assessment skills and learn about things like physics and gravity!

And from trying things and failing they learn to get back up again.  To try again.  To be brave.

Outdoor play face fears

This photo of Rhys was taken at the park one day when he faced his fears and climbed up to the top of this wooden climbing frame.

He had been so scared to do it, and I realised that me standing right by him wasn’t actually helping.  So I backed off a bit.  Gave him the space he needed to take a deep breath and go for it.

Those are the clenched fists and determined face of a boy who achieved something he wasn’t sure he could.

And that is the beauty of outdoor play.

It gives our children the chance to try things.  To have fun.  To explore.  To take risks.  To push themselves.  To develop in so many ways.


Disclaimer: this is a sponsored post with esp play.

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