The Benefits of Outdoor Play for Toddlers & Preschoolers!

With warmer days ahead, outdoor play is something many children and parents are looking forward to! Outdoor play is also a wonderful way to incorporate movement and exercise into your child’s day, while providing opportunities for them to learn in a number of different ways.

Whether at school or at home, playing outside provides unstructured playtime which gives children a break during what are normally predictable and structured hours during their day. It also gives them free time to explore and learn in new ways. Because of that, outdoor play does not need a lot of elaborate equipment to be fun and productive for children.

Enrique Pabon, Education Manager for Head Start and Early Head Start at Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County (CLC) is explaining the best ways to participate in outdoor play with your child.

What skills does outdoor play help children develop?

Peer to peer interaction: During unstructured outdoor play, children have the freedom to engage with their peers and understand how to interact with one another. It also allows children to develop and express their individual personalities. Some children like being the leader, while others prefer to go along with the group and some enjoy playing on their own. Yet other children enjoy doing all three. Outdoor play lets children establish relationships with their peers in the way they feel most comfortable.

Language Skills: By freely interacting with peers, children have the opportunity to speak to one another, have conversations and continue improving their language skills.

Gross Motor Skills: Outdoor play allows children to work on their whole body movement. This includes actions like alternating their feet to walk up and down the stairs, bouncing, climbing and jumping. Spatial awareness is also a skill that outdoor play helps to make children aware of. This includes a child’s ability to navigate through equipment, learning to avoid bumping into objects and being mindful of looking ahead rather than behind them when walking. These are skills a child will benefit from on a daily basis, but need to be practiced!

What are some good outdoor activities for a toddler?

In order to determine the best outdoor activities for toddlers, look at the range of developmental milestones for your toddler’s age, but keep in mind that each child will reach these milestones at a different time. Utilize activities that will allow them to work on the skills associated with each milestone, while allowing them to begin exploring the outdoors with you.

It is also helpful to incorporate materials like a ball. During ball play, toddlers learn how to manipulate a ball with their hands and throw. If your child is using playground equipment, make sure the equipment is age appropriate so that your child will feel successful during playtime. This means that some of the equipment may be smaller than the equipment used for older kids.

It is also helpful to balance structured and unstructured play with a toddler. Let your toddler explore on their own with your guidance. For example, stand with them when they go down the slide and help them if necessary or go down the slide with your child on your lap.

When it’s warm outside, water play is often fun for toddlers. It can be as simple as filling a Tupperware container with water and letting your toddler splash around with their hands or adding some of their toys to the water play. You can also do messy art activities like finger painting outdoors. Think about activities you do not do inside because they can be messy, and bring them outside.

What are some good outdoor activities for a preschool age child?

Outdoor play for preschool age children is very similar to outdoor play for toddlers. But you can usually give preschool age children more independence than you would give to a toddler.

Water play is often very popular with this age group! As with toddlers, it can be simple.

Ball play is also a good activity for preschool children because at this age, children can run with the ball, kick it and catch it. They can also participate in ball play with their peers, and have more space for this activity outdoors than indoors

Think about incorporating a parachute into outdoor playtime. It can be large or small. Get a group of kids together to play with the parachute and practice sensory integration. Children love to run under the parachute and feel the breeze when the parachute goes up and down. You can also incorporate a ball on the top of the parachute move the ball along the top, or see how high they can make the ball jump in the air.

Playing with bubbles is another great outdoor activity for preschool age children. A variety of large and small bubble wands will provide multiple opportunities for discussions & interactions.

If you want to come up with other ideas for outdoor playtime with your preschooler. Think about what you liked to do during gym class when you were younger! Did you like playing tag or having wheelbarrow races? Replicate what you enjoyed doing when you were younger, with your child! It will allow them to explore and develop new, unique skills.

How can parents get involved in making outdoor play a fun learning experience for their child?

As a parent, the best thing you can do is take an interest in what your child is playing and how.

One way to do this is by narrating what they are doing. For example, say something like, “I see that you jumped up the stairs and then slid down the slide.” This confirms and reassures your child that you see what they are doing. You can also add to the narration by asking a follow up question that will enhance their play. Encouragement is always something children want to hear. But also describing what they are doing helps to get you more involved in their activities and holds a lot of value to the child.

It is important that the adult not “takeover” outdoor playtime, since it is meant to be an unstructured time for your child. This can be done by simply paying attention to the child’s reactions. If you are throwing the ball with your child and they walk away, note that it’s time to do something else and let their interests help you determine what the next activity will be.

About CLC

At Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County, our play-based learning philosophy allows children to discover the world at their own pace through hands-on, fun activities. All of our classrooms use the Creative Curriculum, which is backed by comprehensive child development research. The curriculum is built upon hands-on learning, sensory awareness, creative expression, multicultural socialization and lessons that develop literacy and science skills, as well as self-esteem and physical development.

Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County (CLC) is committed to providing early childhood education for all families, with direct services and programs focused in health, nutrition & family support for children aged 6 weeks – 5 years of age. Find more information about enrollment, here!

Using the Yale University Pre-K RULER for Social and Emotional Development

At Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County, our play-based learning philosophy allows children to discover the world at their own pace through hands-on, fun activities. All of our classrooms use the Creative Curriculum, which is backed by comprehensive child development research. The curriculum is built upon hands-on learning, sensory awareness, creative expression, multicultural socialization and lessons that develop literacy and science skills, as well as self-esteem and physical development.

Social and Emotional Development

At CLC, social and emotional development is also a crucial part of our programs. Yale researchers, along with CLC teachers, administrators, children and families have created the first early childhood version of the breakthrough RULER program, an innovative approach to social and emotional development.

RULER is an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning. It was developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and supports entire school communities in understanding the importance of emotions, building the skills of emotional intelligence, and creating and maintaining a positive environment at school.

Using the Yale University Pre-K RULER 

Preschool is the time when children begin to understand the cause of their emotions, making social and emotional development a crucial part of the preschool experience. Empathy also emerges and for many, it’s the first time they are asked to regulate emotions around people outside their families.

The Yale University Pre-K RULER is all about helping children manage their emotions to create a positive place for learning.

“The early childhood years are a sensitive period for the development of emotional intelligence. Children’s language and vocabulary skills are rapidly developing during this time and ensuring that children have the language and strategies they need to manage their emotions can have a profound impact on early childhood classrooms,” said Shauna Tominey, Ph.D. and Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

What does RULER stand for?

According to the Yale University RULER Approach website, RULER stands for:

Recognizing emotions in oneself and in others.
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions.
Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.
Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context.
Regulating emotions with helpful strategies.

It is a way for children to use their emotions effectively – which improves everything from decision making and judgment to physical and mental health, according to Yale researchers. The program is used across all of CLC’s locations and programs.

Why are emotions important?

According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, research shows that emotions influence many areas of our daily lives including:

  • Our attention, memory and learning
  • Our decision making
  • Our creativity
  • Our mental and physical wellbeing
  • Our ability to form and maintain positive relationships
  • Our academic and workplace performance

CLC teachers say RULER helps to create a calmer atmosphere in the classroom. By using RULER, they say they have seen students help each other and find ways to have more pleasant feelings, which improves the learning environment for everyone.

RULER Tools

Developing skills through RULER is based on four tools which the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has outlined. They include:

Charter: Building and sustaining positive emotional climates by creating agreed-upon norms for how people want to feel and how they can help each other to experience those feelings.

Mood Meter: Enhances self and social awareness while supporting the development of a nuanced emotion vocabulary and a range of strategies for regulating emotion.

The Mood Meter is a chart with four squares, each in a different color. The squares are green, blue, yellow and red. Students put a sticker of their face on the square with the color of their mood every morning. They then rate how much they are feeling that emotion on a scale of one to five. This allows teachers to understand how the child is feeling that day and offer extra support where they need to.

Learn more about the mood meter and why it’s so helpful for preschool children’s social and emotional development in the video, here.

Meta-Moment: Provides a process for responding to emotional situations with strategies that align with one’s best self and that support healthy relationships and personal well-being.

Blueprint: Supports the development of empathy and conflict resolution skills by serving as a guide for reflecting on conflict and restoring affected communities.

Each of these tools is outlined on the Yale University Ruler Approach website, here.

What do CLC teachers say about RULER?

“It makes them aware of their own feelings and gives them a way to get it out,” said CLC Room 5 Head Teacher, Jackie. “They learn how to express and understand their feelings, which allows them to understand one another and act with more kindness,” she added.

You can learn more about the evidence for RULER here. They include positive shifts in school climate, enhanced academic performance, quality relationships, less bullying and aggressive behavior.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence named CLC a Marvin Maurer Award winner for our work developing the Pre-K RULER program. It’s given to organizations that exhibit outstanding commitment to promoting emotional intelligence.

Learn more about the RULER program here and the evidence for RULER here.

About CLC

Children’s Learning Centers of Fairfield County (CLC) is committed to providing early childhood education for all families, with direct services and programs focused in health, nutrition & family support for children aged 6 weeks – 5 years of age. Find more information about enrollment, here!