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Why is outdoor free play so important?

What is it?

It is what is says, playing outside with no adult intervention

Why is it important?

There are so many benefits to outdoor play here are just a few of them.

Being outside provides a very rich sensory experience. When kids are playing outside they are engaging all of their senses, their eyes are adjusting to levels of brightness aswell as taking in an array of colours. The auditory system is listening to and processing noises like birds, the wind, waves etc aswell as communicating with who they ate playing with. The tactile system gets a wide range of input by lifting and playing with rocks, sticks, leaves, sand, moss, puddles, mud...the list is endless at the same time the nose is processing all sorts of smells. The proprioceptive system (the system which helps us learn where our body is in space) gets wonderful input when a child is playing outdoors through running, squatting, jumping and climbing. Proprioceptive input is not only vital for development but also for emotional regulation. Finally the vestibular system (knowing where our head is in space) also gets great input. A functioning vestibular system contributes to many different things in the body but one is balance. The ground outside is not predictable and our kids bodies have to react in order to maintain their balance. This is just one of the ways their vestibular system is activated when playing outside.

Outdoor play develops resilience. Being outdoors bring its own challenges. The weather can change without warning, kids can get wet, fall or tired from running and climbing. Maybe the rock pile keeps falling over or the stick fort just won't stay up. As children learn to deal with disappointment they are building resilience and are learning how to cope with circumstances beyond their control.

Outdoor play helps develop efficient gross motor skills. Think about what kids do when they are outside, they run, climb, jump, slide, squat, hang upside down, swing and more! They are moving their body in so many ways which helps to build strength, flexibility, agility, balance and endurance. These complex movements help develop proficient gross motor skills which is the solid foundation for developing other skills such as reading and writing.

In free play children develop life skills. While playing with no adult guidance children learn to work together, to follow a leader, to be the leader, to resolve conflict, to manage their emotions, problem solve, use critical thinking, use their imagination, and get a sense of achievement and when they have worked together to create whatever it is they have been playing with.

What we always have to remember when talking about ALL of this is that our children are DEVELOPING, their brains and bodies are DEVELOPING and they are DEVELOPING these skills as they play. As parents we may not see the benefits for years to come.


Angela Hanscom Paediatric Occupational Therapist and author of the book Balance and Barefoot: How unrestricted outdoor play makes for strong, confident and capable children recommends children get at least 3 hours of outdoor play per day. The NHs recommends 3 hours of active play, preferable outdoors for under 5's and at least one hour per day for 5 - 18 year olds. You and I both know family life is busy and this is not always possible but start small and add in outdoor play to your child's daily routine.


NEVER tell them its a walk. Say your going to the forest, or the beach or the park or out to play. Even though it is a walk they don't like walks. They like running and climbing and playing!

ENTICE them with a snack. A great way to get kids in the car first or out in the garden.

MEET friends. Its a win win kids get to play and you get to chat.

GET the gear - you need it! Waterproof trousers, puddle suits, a second hand coat you don't mind getting muddy and waterproof shoes! Get yourself a pair of shoes you don't mind getting muddy.

DON'T stay on the path. Kids like to explore, they like adventure and most of them don't want to be restricted to the path.

 WET weather means head to the forest, its almost always a million times better under the shelter of the trees.


Outdoor play is essential for a child's physical and emotional development and they will develop skills which will last a lifetime!

Provide simple ways for your child to reap the benefits of outdoor play such as

  • Make your garden appealing with a trampoline or swing set or trucks and bikes and mud kitchens.

  • Get to know your neighbours, kids attract kids and love to play in a big gang.

  • Walk to and from school or park further away - I guarantee your kids will create a game to play while walking.

  • Invite friends over to play in the garden.

  • Ditch the soft play and go to the forest or the rock pools instead - its a lot cheaper and maybe even cleaner!

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