Play time is essential for healthy development in children–that much is clear from mountains of research. Play allows children to organize their thoughts, build neural connections, and develop empathy for others.
Outdoor play has the added benefits of improving the immune system and building strong muscle attachments and strengthening bones. So how do we get our kids outside to play every day? With simple modifications to our outdoor space, we can bolster backyard play for ideal developmental outcomes for our kids.
Keep reading for tips on backyard play
Whether you live in town, in the country, in the suburbs, or in the big city, we all have access to the outdoors. Whatever your “backyard” looks like, daily time for your children to explore and play in the space will improve their emotional, physical, and intellectual health.
But how do we get them to go outside and stay outside for more than 10 minutes at a time? Easy, move mom (primary caregiver) outside, kids will invariably follow. Easy in theory, that is.
Truly, your kids will play outside more and for longer stretches if you join them outdoors, but you are busy, and I bet much of your work is inside work, especially in the winter months. However, the benefits of your children playing outside are so incredible that adjusting your life in small ways is worth it.
Most important, get yourself good clothes for outdoors. A good coat, gloves, boots etc. for the winter makes a huge difference in your comfort. Winter is a tough time to get outside, but even an hour a day has huge benefits!
Make yourself, and your kids, as comfortably clothed as possible then go out for some fresh air. Remember, every 15 minute chunk counts and benefits your children.
So what else besides your presence can improve outdoor play?
Kids live for water. It’s a soothing sensory experience that allows for experimentation and rich imaginative experiences. While a swimming pool is fantastic, if you live in the mid to northern United States, you’re only going to use your pool three to five months each year. Those months are great, but what about water experiences during the other months?
An inexpensive and space saving option, that works for those of you with pools and those of you without, is a simple water station. Basically, a spigot with a hose and handle that small hands can maneuver, a water table, small bins, buckets, or whatever containers you have handy can supply hours of pouring, mixing, imagining and playing in all but the coldest months.
2. Kitchen Tools
Children tend to model the behavior of their parents in their play schemes–which means lots of cooking, cleaning, driving the car, even disciplining of their play things. Pots, pans, spoons, and spatulas are excellent tools to use with water, sand, dirt, mud, grass, you name it! A few items purchased from your local thrift store can go a long ways in enhancing the play your children can do in your own back yard.
3. Play House
Back to the previous point, kids often play at what they see the grown ups around them doing. A play house makes for many, many pretend play opportunities: house, family, grocery store, school, doctor office, a fortress, a castle the list goes on and on.
Want to know a great big secret??? A playable play house doesn’t have to be expensive, big, or permanent! A trampoline, pop up tent, sheet over a rope strung between two trees, or teepee crafted from branches and leaves all serve as excellent options for a DIY play house.
Basically a space that is somewhat enclosed and covered serves as an acceptable house to children. The keg is giving them space and time to use materials to craft their own structure, or, if you happen to have an actual play house, the time to come up with their own
4. Access to dirt
When I say dirt, I really mean leaves, sticks, puddles, sand, grass, flowers etc. Natural substances that can be touched, smelled, tasted (ugh, yes, they’ll taste it all, and they’ll be okay!), seen, and even heard. Natural and varied elements add wonder and sensory depth to our backyards. Access to some amount of nature that they can manipulate and explore is a never ending source of enjoyment for young children.
Keep Backyard Play Simple
Water, kitchen tools, play house, and dirt sounds pretty simple, right? I can promise you that it really is this simple to encourage imaginative play in your backyard. It may take practice and training, but over time and through consistency your children will learn to play outside well.
As they grow in their ability to imagine and create they will crave time outside, in their space. They will begin to use this time to decompress, handle stress, and enjoy themselves. Your children will also become more resilient, simply by virtue of spending time outdoors, rain or shine.
The benefits of unstructured play time aren’t measurable!! It is so good for your children for all of the reasons listed above. Check this article out for more on unstructured play time.
Childhood doesn’t have to be filled with noisy, flashing, store-bought toys. It can look like playing outside for hours on end and creating elaborate plays with siblings and friends. As parents, we have to help our kids find the space to make this happen, supply some basic tools, and then practice the art and skill of playing on a daily basis.
The results will shock you 😉.