Play outside, kids

Play outside, kids

Children learn through play. It tickles their imagination. In fun ways they learn to be creative, to grasp new concepts and to solve problems. Outdoor play is especially important. Movements are bigger and bolder outside. Developmentally, children have to master the big movements before they can master the finer skills of drawing and writing.

In the normal sequence of development children gain control over their bodies from the inside out: First head, then trunk and pelvis, then shoulders and hips, then knees and elbows; until finally the fine finger skills. This is because one needs a stable proximal background for distal movement. If the sequence of development is interrupted or altered, children may lack skills later on. Often they develop incorrect compensatory strategies. These habits are difficult to break and may interfere significantly with academics or sports.

Educators have a renewed interest in outdoor play. In Europe, so-called Forest schools have been introduced. Already there are over 700 of these Wald schools. This is where children interact primarily with nature in any weather conditions. They believe there is no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing. Outdoor education is being revisited. The first open-air class in New York had opened in 1910.

Playing outside is a sensory experience. Pouring water, shifting and moulding sand and mud provide children’s first understanding of the world we live in. How things can be shaped and changed is the start of basic physics.

Being in nature is an exercise in mindfulness. It teaches children to be present in their lives. Mindfulness gives them a sense of wonder in the mysteries of nature. Being still and focusing the mind on sounds and breath is a skill children have to acquire early on. It is a lovely way to calm down and relieve anxiety. Children know how to be busy. They don’t always know how to calm down and be aware.

Sunlight helps the body to manufacture vitamin D. Children need vitamin D to build strong bones and teeth, as it helps to absorb calcium. Vitamin D is needed for a healthy immune system and fights off auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Kids need to be in the sun without sunblock for 10-15 minutes per day. Afterwards apply sunscreen to protect against harmful UV rays. Vitamin D needs magnesium to be utilized properly. (See Epsom salts bath)


Being outdoors influences vision. The impact of risk factors for vision problems lessen when children spend more time outdoors. Outside, kids can focus beyond the four walls.

Vision development is affected in various ways: 

  • Boisterous outdoor running, climbing and jumping provide vital vestibular input. This has a positive influence on eye movement via the vestibulo-ocular reflex.
  • Outdoor play provide ample opportunities for proprioceptive input. Proper proprioception is necessary for accurate vision perception.
  • It was found that the children of myopic parents, with the risk factor of myopia themselves, were at only slightly greater risk than children without myopic parents to develop vision problems if they spend sufficient time outside. Time spent outdoors acted as an equalizer.
  • There are lesser accommodative demands on kids’ eyes when outdoors. Very often kids have vision problems for a while before anyone, including themselves, realize. They assume their perception of the world is accurate and they adapt accordingly. Accommodative spasm can happen when kids strain to focus at near for a prolonged period. Accommodation is when the eye adjusts its focus from near to far and vice versa. The ciliary muscle has to contract for near work and relax for distance vision. Children with accommodative spasm have trouble relaxing these muscles for clear distance vision. These children may have initial trouble coping in a high glasses prescription.
  • Sunlight and natural light seems to have a positive effect on vision. In China, one study found that an extra 40 minutes outside per day resulted in a reduced incidence of myopia over a three year period.

So let’s go play outside, kids.


More information on vitamin D

Study comparing the effects of lifestyle and schooling on vision between Chinese children living in Singapore vs. Sydney

Outdoor Activity Reduces the Prevalence of Myopia in Children (study)



  1. I worked in outdoor education for about ten years and saw incredible benefits. Nature itself is calming for children. Teachers often told me that the children who had attention or behavioural problems in class became completely different in nature – they were much more involved with activities and interacted better with the other children. I am all for forest schools!

    1. Hi Eve! Thank you for this interesting and helpful comment. Much appreciated! More and more there is a movement back to nature and basics it seems. Preschools should be all about learning through play, music, movement and being outdoors with lots of sensory opportunities.


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