The Benefits of Outdoor Unstructured Free Play for Children

Our Relationship to Risk – TED Talk   –  Pediatrician Judy Klein

The topic of outdoor free play has always been a strong passion of mine.  Growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts, I had no shortage of outdoor unstructured play. I didn’t go to Preschool and I started Kindergarten when I was 4 years old.    I was fortunate to have woods in my backyard for sledding, climbing, and building forts.  I had a pond at the end of my street for fishing and skating. The beach was a bike ride away, and another pond with great metal playground equipment and swimming.  I know my generation was lucky, we didn’t have the internet, tv was limited, we shared the one TV, and structured activities were limited.  Unstructured Outdoor play was our way of life. How can we create some of this for our children? Why is it important?

Unstructured outdoor play (Risky Play) for young children is child-directed play that could include dirt, mud, puddles, jumping, climbing, height, speed, uneven terrain, hanging upside down, and spinning.   Don’t be nervous about the term “risky play” and in the video, she does mention some risky play, which I would not recommend for young children.  But substitute risky play for unstructured outdoor play and you have the same meaning.  Dr. Klein talks about the benefits of outdoor/unstructured play for children, but the difference in this TED talk is she also discusses the long-term consequences to children with a lack of outdoor/unstructured play.

 Parents and preschool children have very busy schedules. It is extremely difficult to “get it all in” work, family, food shopping, laundry, household chores, children’s activities.  When is there time for outdoor unstructured play?  Another important question to ask yourself is, what happens if we don’t make time for it?

Children need outdoor experiences that activate all of their senses.  At Little Treasures, we try to create many of these outdoor experiences for our Preschool and PreK children.  Walking outside, listening to the birds, smelling the pine needles on the tree, engage all the senses.   Dr. Klein stated that “Risky play provides an optimal state for the development of neural pathways for Sensory Integration, motor function, and balance.”

The lack of outdoor and risky play may lead to an increase in screen time for young children.  Dr. Klein stated that increased screen time has adverse health consequences such as obesity, premature diabetes, and high cholesterol.  Lack of risky play also has brain and nervous system consequences too.  Dr. Klein stated that 1 in 6 children need Occupational Therapy, in the past this was rare.  Now it is all too common.  Dr. Klein stated, “bodies that are left unchallenged don’t develop properly.”  When children are denied risky play and do not utilize their senses, they may develop Risk Deficit Disorder.   Children need activities like pushing, pulling, spinning, hanging upside down, climbing a tree, merry go round to stimulate their vestibular system.  When the vestibular system is not activated children may experience problems such as understanding their bodies in space, or lack of attention and focus.  Children need exposure to all kinds of sensory stimulation to develop their sensory integration skills.  Children are driven to sensory play, sand, water, mud, messy paint, shaving cream, digging, raking leaves, jumping in leaves, building a snowman, snowball fights, sledding, skating, cornstarch & water, playdough, fishing, cooking, running barefoot in the grass, and dancing with music.  If children are provided with the best environment with space and time to play and create outside, they will find what they instinctively know they need to develop all the necessary skills, but to them, it is just fun and play.  The list is endless and usually free.

Dr. Klein explains, when children are younger the brain development of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the Limbic System is relatively balanced.  The limbic system is in charge of the reward process, emotions, and risk-taking.  The prefrontal cortex controls impulses.  Dr. Klein compares the prefrontal cortex to the police of the limbic system.  These portions of the brain are balanced in young children.  When young children are exposed to risky decisions, they have a healthy respect and fear of risk, they can learn to make educated decisions.  Dr.  Klein states that decision-making is a muscle that needs to be developed.  By using this skill and muscle children will make wiser choices.

What can happen if the risk management process is not developed or matured?  According to Dr. Klein, denying children risky play may have consequences later in life. When children are exposed to risky play they develop negotiating skills, problem-solving skills, they can determine what is a high risk, they have stronger gross motor capabilities, and children are happier playing outside. Children have a natural apprehension of risk.  They explore and learn the world around them.  When children are denied risky play and are protected from these experiences and risks, these feelings escalate instead of overcoming their apprehensions, anxiety, or fear.  Dr. Klein states that anxiety in children is at an epidemic level. Without developing the necessary skills to negotiate risk, children may grow into adolescents who either crave extreme risks or develop an extreme risk aversion.  They live with a high level of anxiety and fear.  Children who crave extreme risks, will make unsafe decisions and feel compelled to participate in dangerous or intense activities.  Children who grow into an adolescent who is anxious and fearful of risks will live a very sheltered life.  They may stay indoors more, live a sedentary lifestyle which could lead to an unhealthy body and mind.  

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