outdoor play and brain development

Outdoor Play and Brain Development 

Outdoor play and brain development go hand-in-hand. One of the universal truths of play is that it is fun. Especially for children. While this may seem obvious to most of us, it’s a critical factor in the design and construction of playgrounds and playground equipment. Just because it may be colorful, inventive or even wildly unique does not guarantee that it is fun to play on. And if a playground isn’t fun, it misses it’s whole reason for being there.

Play, Playgrounds and Childhood Development

While fun is a fundamental element of play, there is also the fact of how important playgrounds are for the development of young children. In this post we want to offer an overview of the evidence for the benefits and impact of outdoor play and the brain development of children.

According to Harvard Medical School, one these benefits is the development of what is known as “executive function.” Executive functions, along with self-regulation skills, are the essential brain processes that enable humans to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks. Our brains need this skill-set to filter distractions, set and achieve goals, prioritize tasks, and even control impulses. 

These executive function and self-regulation skills are dependent on three types of brain function, which are working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control, and they are highly interrelated. In addition, these brain functions must operate in coordination with each other for the successful application of executive function skills.

Executive function skills draw on elements these three brain functions:

  • Working memory governs children’s ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility helps children sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-control enables children to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing explains the executive functions in 6 Reasons Children Need to Play Outside:

“…are the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask; they are crucial for our success. Creativity falls in here, too, and using our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. These are skills that must be learned and practiced — and to do this, children need unstructured time. They need time alone and with other children, and to be allowed (perhaps forced) to make up their own games, figure things out, and amuse themselves. Being outside gives them opportunities to practice these important life skills.”

In addition, the article points out that outdoor play also provides opportunities for risk taking and socialization, both of which contribute to aspects of brain development in children. 

How Outdoor Play Provides Input and Stimulus for Brain Development

We don’t tend to think of language skills as a brain development benefit of outdoor play, but there are substantial studies that “suggest hands-on exploration helps young children learn new words — especially words for things that kids can experience physically — like movements, textures, touchable objects, and physical processes.”

Multiple studies have shown a variety of positive benefits from sunlight. The most apparent and best documented benefit is the production of vitamin D. This is important for several reasons and one of these is that vitamin D levels have been linked with mental planning skills.

According to Dr. Gwen Dewar, many researchers have noted similarities between pretend play and counterfactual reasoning, which is the ability to make inferences about events that have not actually occurred.

“There is also empirical evidence that kids treat play as a tutorial for coping with real life challenges. All around the world, children engage in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults (Lancy 2008), suggesting such play is a form of practice. And when kids are fed information during pretend play–from more knowledgeable peers or adults–they take it in.

Experiments on American preschoolers suggest that children as young as 3 understand make distinctions between realistic and fanciful pretending, and use information learned from realistic pretend scenarios to understand the real world (Sutherland and Friedman 2012; 2013).”

The Power of Outdoor Play

It’s quite apparent that children can play just about anywhere and, while this is true, there are also different levels of play that can be determined by the immediate environment. 

Collectively, studies show that solo play – especially with an electronic device – has far more limited brain development benefits than playing with others. And even less so than playing with others outdoors and especially in a playground environment, for example. 

One more quote to support these contentions. 

Boston Children’s Museum’s The Power Of Play begins with this paragraph:

“The science of brain development is providing concrete evidence that there is real power in play. While often dismissed as “just fun,” play is the vital activity that children use to learn about and interact with their world, and gain the mental, physical and social skills necessary to succeed in their adult lives. As Professor Karen Hutchison of Rowan University says, “Play is actually the work of a child in which they are preparing themselves for adult roles and for society at large.” For a child, play is the vehicle for exploring and learning, developing new skills, and connecting with others. Through self-directed play, children can follow their interests, explore the unknown, link outcomes with choices, conquer their fears, and make friends. “

The page goes on to note that children’s play also is important for developing key skills needed for life-long success. These include critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and collaboration. It’s these capabilities that complement a child’s core subject matter knowledge and are highly valued in a world that has become increasingly complex, competitive, and interconnected.

For an exceptional and awesome commercial playground equipment, go with the experts at Playgrounds Etc. We keep design and safety a priority so kids enjoy fun and safe playgrounds, no matter the age and ability.  Be sure to check out all of our outdoor playground equipment for our full assortment or contact us to design a playground to meet your needs!


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