Outdoor activities are a great benefit for children and plays a critical role in their development process. The features of outdoor environment provide different opportunities that can be difficult to replicate indoors. The outdoors is an open and constantly changing environment where it is possible to experience freedom, movements, and contact with natural elements. While playing outside, children will benefit from the sunlight, natural elements, open air etc. which contributes to bones development, stronger immune system and physical activity. The need to be physically active from an early age is strongly recommended if we consider the issues of growing obesity and overweight in children.
However, the evidences about the importance of outdoor play does not seem to have an impact in the type of experiences that children have access to. Contrary to what would be expected, opportunities for outdoor play are diminishing, in the results of globalization, technology expansion and urban growth. A growing culture of fear about the possible accidents that might happen affect parent’s and professionals attitude towards outdoor play, so children tend to be kept inside, occupied with structured activities, and controlled by adults. Possible hazards, interactions with strangers and car traffic are the most common factors mentioned by parents for not letting their children play outside, even though they acknowledge the importance of such experiences.
There is a concern to occupy children during the day, considering that most parents work long hours and want to guarantee the best opportunities for children to acquire different skills and knowledge. Academic activities often occupy children’s time to play freely. Going from one activity to another, children tend to be transported by vehicle, without experiencing the outdoor environment and having interaction with the community.
There is a need to raise awareness regarding children’s right to play outdoors, as well as its potential in supporting children’s well-being, learning and development. Acknowledging the time children spend in educational settings, concerns about the time and space to play outside should be integrated in education planning. Research shows that early childhood education is too centred in what happens inside the activity room, wrongly considering that the outdoor environment serves merely as recess time. Children tend to spend long periods in closed environments, more exposed to disease contamination and saturated air. Also, the time spent outside was often insufficient, averaging between 16 and 30 min. This is a very short period for children to take advantage of the benefits related to outdoor play, being recommended a minimum of 60 minutes per day.
The outdoor environment provides unique stimulus that capture children’s attention and interest. Natural elements are open-ended materials, that can develop children’s imagination and needs. In this process of reinvention, it is possible to mobilize skills related to divergent thinking, creativity, problem solving, among others. The use of natural elements in children’s play also creates a more sustainable strategy in what concerns resources provision. Natural elements are easy to find, cheap and they do not offer the limited options that commercial toys do.
Today’s society often neglects the importance of risk for children’s learning and development. A culture of fear and overprotection lead us to underestimate what children are capable to do, where children do not have the possibility to learn by experience and learn how to stay safe. It is essential to adopt a wider vision of risk, going beyond the possibility of accidents to consider the positive implications related to the feelings of success and happiness when a challenge or a new skill is mastered. During outdoor play, children should have the opportunity to experiment moments of failure and success, learning by trial and error. If we try to prevent all risky situations, children will not know how to deal with unpredictable environments and will lack the necessary confidence to overcome challenges and obstacles. As adults, what we should do are to always remain close to them, helping, and answering to the questions that emerged from the challenges and obstacles they encountered.
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