The Unexpected Ways Free Outdoor Play Sets Your Child Up for Success

Published on January 11th, 2020 By Linda McGurk

When we think of learning, our mind immediately tends to conjure up images of classrooms, desks and text books. After all, school is the epitome of learning and an institution that most of us send our kids to in order to gain essential skills. But historically speaking, schools are a new phenomenon.

For hundreds of thousands of years, in hunter-gatherer societies, children learned the skills they needed to survive and thrive by playing and exploring on their own. It wasn’t until a few hundred years ago that schooling the way we know it today was invented and eventually became mandated.

The types of skills children need to navigate society today may be more complex than the days when they tumbled around in caves, but their brains haven’t changed that much since then. When children play freely and actively outside – climbing trees, digging holes and jumping around in puddles – they build core strength and grow neuropathways in their brains that help them learn. Studies also show that children learn best when they move – and the outdoors is the best place for that.

Below I’ve listed four traits that can be fostered through free outdoor play. These traits will help set your children up for success in academics, business and life in general before they ever set foot in a classroom!

1. Curiosity and a desire to learn

Children today have access to more information than any generation before them, but what really matters is how well they’re able to convert that information into real knowledge. And to do that they need to develop skills like problem-solving, innovation, social ability, critical thinking and self-motivation. Above all, they need curiosity and a desire to learn, attributes which often rank high when describing what makes a good entrepreneur.

So how do you stimulate young children to crave learning? Number one: let them play! As long and as much as possible. True play is self-directed and self-motivated. Of course, kids benefit from play indoors as well, but research has shown that kids play more creatively and use more of their imagination outdoors. The natural world also offers a lot of sensory stimulation, and there are certain parts of our brain that are only activated when we’re outside.

2. Confidence & ability to manage risks 

Outdoor play is especially suited for so called risky play, which is a thrilling form of play that can involve anything from climbing trees and using knives to sledding down a steep hill and being allowed to play outside without adult supervision. Risky play is essential to childhood as it helps kids develop independence, confidence, and risk management skills, traits that are all crucial both in business and life in general. Teachers will often say that kids who have initially been introverted and shy, frequently become confident and take on leadership roles after spending some time with unstructured play in the outdoors. Plus, being willing to take calculated risks is closely linked to entrepreneurship.

Conversely, when kids are tightly controlled, supervised and not given any opportunity to engage in risky play, or any unstructured play, they may feel like they lose control of their lives. This is bad not just for their self-esteem and independence, but something psychologists believe is a major factor behind the rise of anxiety and depression in children today. 

3. Resilience & executive function skills

Resilience, or grit, is said to be the one quality all successful people possess. A mix of passion and perseverance, resilience is commonly defined as the ability to overcome difficulties and cope with failure, and being constantly driven to reach long-term goals. As it turns out, nature is the perfect place to develop resilience, because it’s full of challenging and varying elements that kids can test their abilities on. A Scottish study even showed that free outdoor play in the woods can help boost resilience in children from challenging backgrounds.

Outdoor play also boosts executive function skills, which include the ability to reason, plan, remember, use self-control and solve problems. Executive function skills and considered a better predictor of academic success than IQ or fluency with letters and numbers, and basically lay the foundation for life-long success and well-being.

4. Ability to focus and handle stress

Researchers aren’t completely sure why, but being in nature has a proven calming and restorative effect. And a calm mind, as a general rule, tends to function more efficiently and effectively than an anxious one. A Norwegian study also showed that 4-7-year-olds who spend more time playing outside are better able to pay attention at school and less likely to show symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity. The restorative power of nature is so amazing that even looking at nature scenes on a computer while doing repetitive tasks can reduce the number of errors and improve productivity.

Being able use nature as tool for restoration will likely become even more important in a fast-paced future. But that also requires us to be connected to nature from childhood, or we may never discover the healing powers of nature in the first place. And that would really be a shame.

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