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!