The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play for Children |

The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play for Children

Remember the days when you used to play outside until the sunset? How we biked, kicked a ball around, and roamed the neighbourhood with our friends without any adult supervision? Much of my childhood was like that until I went to high school in the mid-2000s. It was then that I received a personal computer from my father to encourage my writing. It opened a whole new online world to me during those burgeoning years of the internet. Delving deeper and deeper, I began to stay inside more and surf the internet after school instead of play outside. Does this habit sound familiar to you? 

Much of our younger generation’s pastimes include watching TV shows or movies, playing video games, engaging in social media, and making videos on their online platforms. If they are part of any outdoor play, it is usually in a structured setting such as team sports, swimming classes, or summer camp. These are good activities for your children, however, it usually does not allow them spontaneous exploration, creativity, or engagement with the surrounding flora, fauna, animals, or bodies of water. 

1,000 Hours Outside Project 

There is a dedicated global movement called “1,000 Hours Outside.” This movement focuses on the importance of getting our kids to spend much of their time outdoors for at least 1,000 hours per year. They abide by the fact that if American children can spend on average 1,200 hours a year in front of screens, then playing outside for at least 1,000 hours a year should also be priority1. It is hoped that tracking these hours outside will help to build a habit of playing outside in our children. The founder of this movement has suggested getting the majority of outdoor playtime done between the months of April and October when the weather is warmer. Some outdoor time during winter is important as well to build resilience to the colder weather.

Benefits of Outdoor Play 

According to Dr. Carla Hannaford, a renowned biologist who focuses on children’s development, the most important activity we can engage in to increase brain integration - engaging all areas of the brain - is unstructured, imaginative play. It is crucial for social, emotional, and cognitive development2. The natural environment provides a rich sensory environment, which lets one get lost in wonder and imagination3. We should provide them opportunities for higher development as much as we can during their formative years by letting them get at least 3 hours of spontaneous outdoor play every day, if possible. 

Moreover, Integrated Learning Strategies, an organization focused on a holistic approach to a child’s well-being, has found that when children are removed from free play, they lose out on important opportunities to develop: 

  • gross and fine motor skills - using their limbs, fingers and toes
  • hand-eye coordination 
  • proprioceptive system - the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body 
  • vestibular systems - functions to detect the position and movement of our head in space, allowing for the coordination of eye movements, posture, and equilibrium4

As a result, children become more fidgety in class and act out instead of retaining what is being taught in class, for example. 

It is actually part of the Sunnah (sayings and actions of the Prophet) of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, to engage in outdoor activities such as horse-riding, swimming, and archery. In a Hadith narrated by Ibn Umar, there are three kinds of exercise were particularly encouraged by the Prophet: 

Teach your children swimming, archery and horse riding.

(Musnad Ahmad)

These activities encourage the above listed skills of gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and development of the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, subhan Allah, all glory is to Allah! 

Lastly, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, has written a book called Balanced and Barefoot in which she explores the benefits of outdoor play on children’s brains. She speaks of how deprivation of child-led play leads children to struggle with higher-level thinking skills such as problem-solving, coming up with their own ideas, and other forms of creative expression5. She goes on to explain how staying outdoors longer than 45 minutes gives children more exposure to sensory integration through our 5 bodily senses. Moreover, children become more attuned to their environment which helps calm their bodies down. They also need a little danger in an environment that encourages jumping, swinging, even crashing, all which build their core muscles benefitting their posture when sitting in class. Which makes one think how important outdoor recess is in between classes. Their brains need to be activated through movement, which will only further enhance their learning abilities in the classroom and more6.

Other Advantages to Outdoor Play 

There are other advantages to outdoor play that are worth noting.

  • It fosters independence as the freedom to roam, experiment, try new games with friends helps them to learn what their capabilities and boundaries are. They become more confident as a result of this.
  • They learn to self-reflect and become self-reliant as having new experiences in their environment and with other people (i.e, on the playground or in the forest) makes them come face-to-face with their successes and failures. Cooperative play with other kids and turning their ideas into reality (i.e, building a sand castle, playing a game of self-made rules) give children opportunities to problem-solve, be respectful, and follow rules. They come to rely on those experiences later on.
  • They build resilience as the outdoor environment, unlike their devices, does not provide instant gratification. The unpredictability outdoors helps children deal with emotional and physical difficulties. They are forced to pushed through uncomfortable situations by working with their fears and stress, and eventually build internal motivation and confidence. For example, a child may want to cross the top of a fallen log with balance, but they keep falling off to the side. Instead of giving up, they may keep getting back on it to try again until they are successful. 
  • They develop interpersonal skills by being with other children without parental intervention. If a child wants to cross a small creek to the other side, an older child may hold their hand to help them walk across. These sorts of experiences help build cooperation and sensitivity to others’ needs. These kinds of skills can also be built on a playground best without parental intervention (you may watch what happens on the side). 
  • It makes them more curious and build new interests by observing how the trees look or grow or how animals live outdoors. Parents can encourage these interests by bringing in more educational tools and materials such as a rock collection and books on geology. You can also take them to a zoo or farm if they have an interest in certain animals and let the experts there explain more about those animals. 

How to Encourage Outdoor Play 

It is important for us to encourage our children to play outdoors. Here are some ways to do just that:

1. Start out small and make it fun. 

Start with your backyard or local park, and build from there by taking them on hiking trails thereafter. You can start with one hour a day and add more time as they get used to being outside. Encourage them to play with a ball or sport they like freely, rather than limiting physical exercise to team sports. 

2. Include their friends or other like-minded families in these outdoor excursions. 

Having more company outdoors makes the experience more enjoyable. Make it a routine so that you can slowly build up their comfort with the outdoors. You can also suggest a scavenger hunt and include their friends, for example, so that they are made to engage with the natural environment around them. 

3. Schedule a time and make it regular. 

Scheduling can help make sure you fit this into your daily routine. Your children will become comfortable with going outside and start looking forward to it. In time, they may begin asking for longer time outside and ask you to take them out more often. 

A Reflection 

Looking back at my teenage years and early 20s, despite being on the internet much of the time, I still found myself going outside more during the warmer months with my family because they had a special interest in hiking, going to the beach, or playing badminton and sitting in the backyard. It made me appreciate the outdoors well into my current season of young motherhood. I currently homeschool my children so that I could allow them to have ample time to play freely and spontaneously. Inside my home, I’ve made an environment conducive to creative construction and problem solving with myriad items that include toys and household items. I’ve always limited their screen time to encourage alternative free play.

As for the outdoors, my children are outside 4-6 hours a day between the months of April to October. Over the past few summers, I’ve seen them take risks by climbing high into the trees, playing freely in the mud (which made for mounds of laundry!), curiously stop to look at the rabbits, squirrels, and robins in our yard, and help their father grow vegetables.

They go to our backyard on a whim and enjoy it. They are not afraid to get dirty in the natural elements. They enjoy the hikes, lakes, farms, and, of course, playgrounds, we take them to every time. They truly enjoy the outdoors, all the while recognizing that it is all Allah’s creation alhamdulillah, all praises are to Allah. That is the best part of being outdoors; the deeper connection we make to Allah. 

I hope that all our children come to love the outdoors as we did when we were younger. We all want our children to grow into confident, resilient, self-reliant, and creative individuals. Let us begin by taking them outside one hour at a time, inshaAllah, God-willing.

End Notes



3 Children Should Be Outside for 4-6 Hours Every Day

4 Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children - Integrated Learning Strategies 

5&6 Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children - Integrated Learning Strategies

7 6 Benefits of Outdoor Play For Children & Their Development

Sumayya Khan is a homeschooling mother of two and a teacher. She has worked with several Islamic schools and organizations in the last 10 years. She is currently teaching Literature online with Dawanet and studying the Qur’an through Al-Huda Institute. In her free time, she loves to spend time with her family and friends, play sports, enjoy nature, and read books. She currently resides with her family in Toronto, Canada.

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