The Seven Benefits of Outdoor Play

“Go play outside!” Nature is the ultimate sensory experience.

Many of us remember hearing our exasperated parents give this familiar direction to us as children. And play outside we did! Playing outside was an adventure of building forts, picking berries, riding bikes, jumping in leaf piles and climbing trees. Little did we know how valuable these experiences were to our development. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to create an environment more rich with sensory input and gross motor opportunities than Mother Nature’s great outdoors.

As pediatric occupational therapists (OTs) , we frequently work with children with sensory disorders. For some children, the sensory information from the environment is coming into their nervous systems too strongly and for others, it’s not coming in strongly enough. Oftentimes as OTs we will prescribe a “sensory diet.” This diet is less about food but rather consists of appropriate sensory activities that help meet each child’s specific needs. Many children need a “just right” mix of certain sensory input throughout their day to help them feel at ease in their bodies, manage their emotions and pay attention to directions. Sometimes these sensory disorders affect a child’s motor coordination and he or she needs extra practice to learn motor skills that we all take for granted. While we OTs are very skilled at re-creating this sensory input in an indoor environment, much of it exists naturally once you step outside.

Consider the following outdoor sensory input and outdoor activities broken down by each sense:

Visual Input
Sunlight of all intensities streaming through leaves on a tree, vibrant colors on plants and flowers, trees dancing in the wind, clouds far in the distance, rain falling, inspecting small insects and details of plants

Touch (Tactile)
Mud, dirt, crunchy leaves, walking with bare feet on grass, touching rough bark when climbing trees, wind blowing across the skin/hair, wading in creeks and streams, the variety of textures felt on different leaves, pinecones, flowers

Smell (Olfactory)
Sweet smelling flowers, musty, earthy smell after a rain, herbs in the summertime, manure and other animal smells

Sound (Auditory)
Wind blowing through leaves, birds chirping, dogs barking, animals foraging for food in the leaves

Taste (Oral)
Summer is a wonderful time to explore the tastes of outdoors through a cultivated garden. Sweet berries, crunchy vegetables and fragrant herbs provide unsurpassed oral input that cannot be beaten.

Proprioceptive (muscle/joint activation)
Climbing trees, hiking and learning to navigate nature’s obstacles (roots, fallen logs, holes), yard work that involves carrying brush, hauling fall leaves on a blanket, pushing a wheelbarrow, digging in a garden.

Vestibular (movement/balance)
Swinging, riding bikes and scooters, roller skating/blading, rolling down hills, sledding, running, walking across a fallen log, balancing while walking on stones in a creek.

The benefits of these types of sensory experiences do not end with sensory input alone. They are also beneficial for gross motor development, including building muscle strength, endurance and motor coordination. For example, looking far into the distance provides opportunities for use of long range vision that is rarely used indoors and can strengthen visual skills. Climbing trees improves the coordination of the upper body and the lower body working together. Navigating natural obstacles on a hike strengthens visual perceptual skills. Building forts strengthens problem solving skills and eye-hand coordination. Drawing with chalk on the driveway strengthens visual motor skills and the muscles in the wrist. Picking small flowers/clovers/grass encourages a pincer grasp. Not to mention that all of these activities encourage creativity in an unstructured environment that is desperately needed for children who spend the majority of their day indoors, immersed in structured routines imposed on them by adults. So, with summer approaching, now is the time to take advantage of the unlimited sensory and motor opportunities awaiting you and your child right outside your back door!

The Seven Benefits of Outdoor Play
Courtney Webb Carriveau, MS OTR/L


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