Parents sometimes underestimate the value of play. In an effort to keep their children safe and help them excel, many parents keep their children very busy in structured activities, academic pursuits, and passive activities indoors. Although reading, homework, and organized arts and sports are all important to a child’s development, so is the opportunity to play outside. Free play is essential in a child’s overall development. It helps children develop creativity and problem-solving abilities; it strengthens their cognitive and social skills; it cultivates initiative and independence; it teaches emotional control; it helps develop motor coordination; and it helps children gain confidence as they explore their world. Play is also a great antidote to obesity, providing physical activity that makes our children strong.
“The earliest forms of physical exercise are a baby and toddler’s simple efforts to explore objects and concepts like space, distance, speed, time and weight,” explains Peter A. Gorski, MD, MPA, the chief health and child development officer for The Children’s Trust. “As children grow, play becomes the vehicle for continued activity, helping to increase coordination, strength, and skill.”
Playing indoors can also be valuable, especially if you provide inexpensive playthings that encourage creativity and self-expression, such as blocks, dress-up clothes, and art supplies. But there is nothing like fresh air and sunshine to bring out the best in your child.
If you don’t take your child outdoors very often, you are not alone. A recent study found that half of the preschoolers in this country do not go outside with a parent daily to play. The study noted that outdoor activity is important to child health and development and that improvement in this area is needed in the interest of our children.
The weather here will be improving with the coming of spring, so plan to takeyour children outside for some fun and games, whether in your backyard, in your neighborhood, or at a park or playground. But even when it’s cold outside, don’t let that prevent you from letting your child play outside. Research has shown, and doctors will tell you, that cold weather does not cause colds or other illnesses. People in cold climates such as Alaska and Canada have no more winter colds or other similar ailments than people living in a warm climate. In fact, cold weather actually appears to stimulate the immune system, according to a study by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.
Letting children play outside is a great strategy if a parent is trying to encourage more physical activity. When prompted to play outside, children naturally engage in physical activities that they enjoy, Dr. Gorski says. “This remains true throughout adult life,” he says. “Ask anyone who has engaged in exercise because they felt they had to, as opposed to folks who pursue an active lifestyle because that brings them pleasure. The former are likely to stop and start repeatedly with unsatisfying results. The latter group weaves physical activity into their lives naturally and playfully as they pursue their favorite hobbies.” If children see play as something fun, they will be much more likely to engage in some form of regular physical activity their whole lives.
The fact that playing outside is so critical to a child’s development is the reason many pediatricians and child development experts are worried about the trend in some school systems across the country to cut back or eliminate recess. Free play outdoors is a learning activity if supervised properly.
The earlier you start encouraging physical activity, the more natural it will be for your children — and the greater the likelihood they will stay active through their teen years and into adulthood.
One of the keys is not to get too serious. It should be all about fun. “Playing together is a great way to keep kids interested in being active,” says Suzanna Rose, PhD, executive director of the School of Integrated Science & Humanity at Florida International University. “We teach parents that they don’t need expensive equipment or a big backyard to play active games. The secret is to make active games and play a part of the child’s daily routine.”