Unplug and Create Time for Unstructured, Outdoor Play

By January 26, 2017A Word on Wellness

By Patti Duckworth, Lower School Counselor

“Kids, go outside and play!” Do you remember hearing those words as you were growing up? As it turns out, our parents were right! Spending time playing outside actually enhances brain development and the overall health of our children. According to the book, The Importance of Outdoor Play and Its Impact on Brain Development In Children, a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation determined that children ages 8 to 18 are spending more than seven and a half hours a day with electronic devices, the same number of hours some people spend at full-time jobs. While the academic enhancements of certain online programs and apps are clear, perhaps those technological tools are best used in tandem with plenty of unstructured, outdoor play in order to gain the benefits listed below in the aforementioned book.

Outdoor play will:

  • Increase the flow of blood to the brain. The blood delivers oxygen and glucose, which the brain needs for heightened alertness and mental focus.
  • Build up the body’s level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. BDNF causes the brain’s nerve cells to branch out, join together and communicate with each other in new ways, which leads to your child’s openness to learning and more capacity for knowledge.
  • Build new brain cells in a brain region called dentate gyrus, which is linked with memory and memory loss.
  • Improve their ability to learn.
  • Increase the size of basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control,” or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply.
  • Strengthen the vestibular systems that create spatial awareness and mental alertness. This provides your child with the framework for reading and other academic skills.

Unstructured outdoor play also develops our children’s’ social skills. National Public Radio, Ed, highlighted the work of Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, in their 2014 feature titled “Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build a Better Brain.” Pellis shared how childhood play makes changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. He stated, “It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. So play,” he adds, “is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.”

Our children’s physical health is also boosted with outdoor play. In the article “Get Your Kids Good and Dirty,” Finlay and Arrieta share that by preventing babies and children from following their innate impulse to get dirty, we shield them from the microbial exposure that is essential for the development of a healthy immune system. So, during your next opportunity for some down time, why not take a trail hike in the woods as a family? The benefits are strong for the entire family, according to Richard Louv, the author of The Last Child in the Woods. His book brought together a body of research which indicated that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of not only children, but of adults too!

The question looms… how do parents balance it all when free time is scarce? An interesting viewpoint regarding scheduled, structured play, technology-driven play, and/or enrichment activities vs. outdoor, unstructured play was shared by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg in his abstract published in Pediatrics magazine. Dr. Ginsburg highlights the following points:

  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength
  • American children with adequate resources may be limited from enjoying the full developmental assets associated with play because of a family’s hurried lifestyle as well as an increased focus on the fundamentals of academic preparation in lieu of a broader view of education.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue
  • Organized activities have a developmental benefit for children, especially in contrast to completely unsupervised time.2 It is less clear, however, at what point a young person may be “overscheduled” to their developmental detriment or emotional distress. Free child-driven play known to benefit children is decreased, and the downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction is at a premium when schedules become highly packed with adult-supervised or adult-driven activities.
  • Parents should consider the appropriate balance between preparing for the future and living fully in the present to emphasize the benefits of “true toys” such as blocks and dolls, with which children use their imagination fully, over passive toys that require limited imagination.
  • Pediatricians can promote free play as a healthy, essential part of childhood. They should recommend that all children are afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, nonscreen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress.

So, the next time the kids say, “I’m bored!” why not follow the advice of our parents and send them outside to play? Not only will outdoor play enhance overall child development, it doesn’t cost a thing!