Is Outdoor Play Just a Big Waste of Time?

Updated: Mar 19, 2019


Some believe that outdoor play for children has little educational value. It's unstructured and has no obvious learning outcomes, you might hear them say. But is outdoor play a waste of time? Are children learning valuable lessons or are they just messing about in the mud? Should we lessen the amount of outdoor play to focus more on structured classroom learning instead?


Well, unlike maths or literacy which can be rigorously assessed each term to determine a child's progress, outdoor play can't be tested and given a grade score. And sadly, many adults have only a vague recollection of the joys of playing outside as a child. When they peer back into the school yard, and see youngsters playing, some might remark "Oh what I'd do to be 7 years old again without a care in the world!" Playtime is just a fun break from classroom learning, and little more, right?



It's Child's Play


Wrong, wrong and wait...you guessed it, wrong! Children were born to be outdoors. Just like lion cubs in the animal kingdom, children need play outside with other kids. Human beings are social creatures with complex social structures, and it's during unstructured outdoor play that essential social skills build and develop, such as, communication and language skills, negotiation, conflict resolution, buildings friendships and many more. Without adequate childhood play from an early age, children struggle to develop socially.


"Outdoor play has been essential to child development for tens of thousands of years, and it will continue to be this way for many eons to come."

On top of essential social skills, children also develop in a huge variety of other ways during outdoor play. While playing together in nature, children are learning, creating and sensing. They are relaxing, thinking, exploring, observing and wondering. And they are connecting, discovering, appreciating, understanding and experimenting.


Trying to develop all of these key learning outcomes within a formal classroom lesson would be nigh on impossible. Yet incredibly children naturally incorporate every one of these types of thinking and learning into outdoor play without even a second thought! It's instinctual and authentic context-based learning, which is very difficult to achieve in any other way. Outdoor play has been essential to child development for tens of thousands of years, and it will continue to be this way for many eons to come.


"Children were born to be outdoors. Just like lion cubs in the animal kingdom, children need play outside with other kids. Human beings are social creatures with complex social structures, and it's during unstructured outdoor play that essential social skills build and develop..."

Outdoor Play is Non-negotiable!


So the next time an adult says that outdoor play is pointless and a waste of time, just remind them that it's absolutely essential to child development. Children aren't just playing when they're outside, they're learning about their place in a complex and socially diverse world, which takes time and gradual progression through years of unstructured nature-based play throughout childhood. In addition, outdoor play gets children physically active and boosts mental wellbeing at a time when child obesity and mental health problems among young people are reaching epidemic proportions in the developed world.


So let's sum things up. Outdoor play is a non-negotiable part of any child's upbringing, and must be valued as such in our education system today. Is is undoubtedly as valuable as numeracy and literacy, if not more so. So let me leave you with this image as food for thought:



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