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5 Ways Playing Outdoors is Better Than Inside.

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Why do kids learn better outside than indoors?

Child splashing in puddle during nature play in rainy weather, puddle play for preschoolers at forest school

As a mom to four young children, ensuring my little humans develop healthy motor skills and have the opportunity to engage in sensory play is important to me.

Recently, I interviewed Pediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom and discovered there was

a LOT I didn't know about the quality of playtime, and why kids should spend most of it outdoors.

1. Light touch vs. Deep pressure.

preschooler nature play in puddles

Imagine a collection of interesting objects placed in a box of sand or water on the table. A child will primarily develop their fine motor skills (light touch) while they play in this sensory bin, typically while sitting in a chair. Now imagine how a child might interact with leaves or sticks in a puddle outdoors. They will experience light touch sensations here too, but they are more likely to also experience deep pressure sensations like sitting on bumpy ground or carrying heavy sticks. These deep pressure sensations enhance the integration of motor skills.

Also, many young kids are averse to light touch sensations and don't want to get dirty. A baby or toddler outside will experience light touch (e.g. getting dirty) at the same time as deep pressure (e.g. using their hands to move around), which helps to integrate these sensations in the brains and override the light touch aversion from an early age.

2. Kids get a full-body sensory experience outside.

BIPOC child playing outdoors in nature at forest school.

Rather than repeating the same few movements while playing indoors with a sensory bin, a child outside will be navigating uneven terrain, making contact with the ground and surfaces with different points of their body, and moving many different muscle groups. Stimulating multiple senses and muscle groups simultaneously requires coordination and is a full-body experience for dynamic development.

Looking for fun ways to inspire little ones to explore sensory play? 'Meet the Wild' is the PERFECT new children's book that introduces outdoor sensory play!

3. Nature offers balanced stimulation.

preschool play in sandbox at nature centered forest education program

Nature offers a calming environment and the ideal organization of stimulation. The calming color palette, natural scents, and soothing sounds found outdoors are organized in a way that reduce cortisol levels and calm the brain. The dynamic environment also demands that a child pay attention (e.g. uneven ground), which ultimately creates the ideal state for a brain to be to organize and learn within, described as both 'calm and alert'.

"Nature is the Ideal environment for sensory integration to happen.." – Angela Hanscom

Conversely, highly interactive indoor indoor environments with strong primary colors and indoor noise often creates a dysregulating (and distracting) environment for children.

4. Kids need to get dizzy & go upside down.

Child spinning and getting dizzy outdoors in spring nature evening

Kids won't experiment with spinning and playing upside down while indoors, which is critical for critical to developing balance in early childhood. Balance is essential for developing healthy sensory integration (where the brain is able to receive sensory input, organize it, and respond appropriately). Developing strong balance early on is also important later on, as it affects a child's attention span and the ability to stay seated in the classroom.

5. Longer play time, less transitions.

forest playground child climbing large tire developing gross motor skills and persistence

Indoor play and busy school schedules create a LOT of transitions as children move from one task or activity to another (very disorganizing for little brains!).

Conversely, outdoor play offers a richer environment for extended play and fewer transitions, and children can go deeper into their play and learning experience. This offers more time and enhanced integration of these new skills. Outdoor play also offers more opportunities for child-directed experiences, which develops independence, resiliency, and confidence.

As parents, we all want to create the best play opportunities for healthy development for our children at home. I'm even more convinced now that the best opportunities are waiting outdoors already, and not assembled indoors.

Want to Learn More?

  1. In Print: Angela Hanscom is the author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, which discusses the effects of restricted movement and lack of outdoor playtime on overall sensory development in children.

  2. For Educators: Angela also founded Timbernook, which offers and teaches nature-centered development programming for children ages 3-12.

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