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  • Writer's picturePlay Connect

The Power of Outdoor Play: Incredible Benefits for Children

Updated: 5 days ago

Play is a powerful developmental tool regardless of where children engage in it. Outdoor play however, offers unique opportunities to explore the world around us and engage with nature. Regardless of age or season, outdoor play can provide a variety of academic, physical, social, and emotional benefits.

Academic Benefits: The learning opportunities while playing outdoors are truly endless and can happen naturally. Though these opportunities are easily possible for all ages we will focus on the early learning stage. Note that many of the learning through play opportunies can easily cover more than one academic area.

Summer: Playing in the sandbox or beach

Child playing with sand

  • Math and Science: Children will notice shapes when they use sand toys (i.e. a square shovel, a round bucket). Although they may not yet fully understand the concept (or the words to go with it) they will also notice volume. When they fill a bucket up, they may notice that a smaller one requires less sand to become full than a large bucket. Children may notice cause and effect in that sand moves when there is wind. They can notice that it gets hot when the sun shines on it and cools off when they dump water onto it. They may notice that to build sandcastles they must add water to the sand.

  • Language: Common vocabulary may be used and practiced in conversation such as: sand, sandbox, beach, shovel, castle etc. This is also a great opportunity for children to share their ideas using descriptive language i.e. "Please place that bucket upside down next to the other one" etc.

Fall: Playing in the leaves

Child playing in leaves

  • Math and Science: Children may notice that some leaves are larger than others. They may notice that leaves are different colors and categorize them. Children may make big or small piles of leaves and compare them. Children can observe that leaves change colors in the fall and give off a different scent. They will recognize that leaves fall off of the trees, more so when it is windy.

  • Language: Common vocabulary may be used and practiced in conversation such as: leaves, trees, color, change, rake, wind, etc. Children may notice and describe various sounds while they play - crunching of the leaves, wind blowing in the trees, squirrels running around etc.

Winter: Playing in the snow

Child forming a snowball

  • Math and Science: Children are likely to notice if there is a lot or a little bit of snow on the ground. They are likely to compare various snowfalls throughout the season "oh we have a lot of snow" or "why isn't there a lot of snow?" While building a snow person they may notice that they need a large snowball followed by medium, followed by small. They may also notice the shapes they use when creating the face. Children are likely to notice that a large snowball weighs more than a small snowball. Children can observe that snow melts when it is warm outside and freezes or gets crunchier when it is very cold. They may notice that some snow is easier to pack than other snow, likewise that some snow is better for sledding than other snow.

  • Language:  Common vocabulary may be used and practiced in conversation such as: cold, snowball, snow, sled, melt etc. Children may work on sequencing during play - building a snow creature is the perfect time to do this i.e. "First place the large snowball down, then the medium, then the small. Add eyes, a nose, and a mouth."

Spring: Playing in a garden


  • Math and Science: Children may compare and contrast the various sizes, colors, and textures of different plants. Children may count how many of each plant they see. They can recognize that some plants give us food to eat and other plants give other animals food. Children can learn the importance of pollinators when watching them land on various flowers. Spring is a wonderful time to notice the cycle of life, not just in plants but in many other creatures, such as birds as well. Children can see cause and effect when they jump into a puddle! They may notice that when they do a big jump it splashes more than a small jump (Also seeing water displacemen take place)!!

  • Language: Common vocabulary may be used and practiced in conversation such as: flowers, butterfly, rain, bee, umbrella etc. Children may work on tenses while playing "it rained yesterday and now there are puddles." "Let's plant some more seeds tomorrow"

Each season provides wonderful opportunities for children to create artistic masterpieces along with choosing and using various materials to represent what they notice as well!


Physical Benefits: In this portion we will explore the physical benefits of outdoor play - these easily cross all age groups!

  • Opportunity for movement - though plenty of sports and activities can be done inside, many can be done much more easily outdoors simply because there is more space to do so...and less chances for breaking things. If we give children larger outdoor space to play, they can do larger movements, they can run further and faster, they can jump higher, and they can throw farther. All of these movements are great for building muscle, helping cardiovascular health, and more!

  • Building balance - Though balance can be improved during indoor play, think about how much fun it was as a child to balance on different surfaces, to climb over rocks or to step over (or onto) fallen tree branches. Moving on different surfaces allows children to build different muscles than on flat surfaces!

  • Rest - Spending time playing outdoors, breathing fresh air, and moving bodies help regulate sleep!

Child stepping in stream

Social and Emotional Benefits: Another key aspect of children's development is their social/emotional skills. This is a skill that develops so much in the early years of childhood and continues throughout a child's life.

  • Social play and understanding: A children's ability to share ideas, develop friendships, and understand others happens in magical ways outdoors. A garden becomes a fairy home, a tree becomes a fort and so much more. This imaginative play builds social skills in wonderful ways.

"In natural spaces, children have a freedom to play in ways rarely possible in even the most developmentally appropriate indoor environments" (1)

  • Empathy and care: while playing outdoors, children naturally encounter many creatures smaller than themselves. They will learn that every creature from an earth worm aerating our soil to a bumble bee pollinating a flower is important. They will develop the sense that smaller does not mean less valuable and that we must care for these creatures as we care for others.

  • Feelings of relaxation and calm - outdoor play can give children the mental break they need to help them to concentrate and have feelings of calm (after they are done running around of course)!

Two children in a slide

The wonderful developmental opportunities that outdoor play can provide are vital for children's growth. Children need space to play regardless of where they are from. Though this is true, both the time and opportunities for play have been historically limited across social and economic groups. We need to give children the chance, regardless of where they are located to engage in outdoor play.


  1. Janet E. Thompson, E. D. (n.d.). Natural Connections: Children, Nature, and Social-Emotional Development. Retrieved from Natural Connections.pdf:  


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