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New Year's Resolutions: Outdoor Play

Dragon playground markings

For many people, the beginning of a new year brings resolutions, promises and a general feeling of starting afresh. Pledges of self improvement are made, with more exercise and less screen-time being popular entries at the top of the list. The festive period and the sedentary indulgence it encourages can leave both grown-ups and children a little sluggish by the time January comes around. Unfortunately, the chilly weather that comes with it isn’t the most conducive to getting outside and getting active, but the physical and mental benefits of outdoor play are more important than ever. 

The Importance of Outdoor Play

It’s important to note that encouraging children to get outdoors and exercise in the New Year isn’t about ‘losing the Christmas weight’ as many of us are encouraged to do at this time of year. Although maintaining a healthy weight is important, we want to focus more on the the mental, emotional and cognitive benefits of outdoor play as children return to school after the holidays. It’s possibly the first time they’ve seen their friends since before Christmas, and there’s sure to be excitement as they share stories of what they got up to, and what Santa brought them for Christmas. There will be some energy to burn off as they re-adjust to being back in the classroom — creating the perfect opportunity to get them back outside. 

Mental and Emotional Benefits of Outdoor Play

It’s been argued that the third Monday of January is the ‘most depressing’ day of the year. Whether you believe this or not, it does seem feasible. The thrill of Christmas has well and truly passed, the old routine is firmly cemented back in place. Even if it’s not raining, everything feels a little grey and dreary. Again, it doesn’t paint a particularly enticing picture, but even when the skies are overcast, spending time outdoors is usually enough to alleviate symptoms of Season Affective Disorder (SAD) — and that’s before introducing any structured play or specific games. Being outside in natural sunlight allows the body to produce vitamin D naturally, realising serotonin in the brain and helping to improve mood. Combining this with free space to run around, spend time in nature, explore imaginative and sociodramatic play with friends and generally let off steam is a recipe for improved wellbeing and happier children. Not only this, but unstructured outdoor play may be extra helpful to neurodivergent or anxious children, who may find the increased change in routine a little more difficult to adjust to. 

outdoor play

Physical Benefits of Outdoor Play

As we said before, the physical benefits of outdoor play aren’t restricted to fitness and weight maintenance, even after Christmas. It’s likely that for some children, the holidays have seen an increase in screen time, and outdoor play provides a necessary respite for their eyes. Eye strain, dry or tired eyes are unpleasant for anyone, and can be distracting when trying to focus on learning. Regular breaks from screens help to reduce chances of developing short-sightedness in the future. The ‘sunshine vitamin’, Vitamin D that’s so good for mood is also important for calcium absorption in the body, helping children to maintain healthy bones and teeth. 

Social Skills and Co-operation

duck duck goose playground markings

As we mentioned before, it may have been a little while since children have had the opportunity to socialise with their friends in person for a little while, and they’ll probably have stories to share with one another from their time off. From a teaching perspective, this could be a little disruptive if there’s too much of it during class, and is maybe better suited to the playground. The social element of outdoor play goes beyond the intentional planning and installation of games that encourage co-operation and interaction, such as Duck, Duck, Goose - and at it’s simplest, creates a space where chatting can be done freely and non-disruptively. This serves to tighten bonds between friends after time apart and helps children to get things off their chest so they can be more focussed on the present, rather than their presents. 

Improved Readiness To Learn

Classroom teaching

Returning to the classroom after all the excitement of Christmas, seeing family and opening gifts is a struggle for both children and teachers, and it’s only fair to expect that perhaps busy minds won’t be entirely focussed on learning for the first day or so. Spending time in the fresh air is a great way of clearing the mind and refreshing the brain, and the school playground is the ideal way to bridge the gap between the freedom of the holidays with the structure of the classroom. There’s a reason why ‘go for a walk’ is a frequent piece of advised extended to grown-ups who may be feeling a little frazzled, burnt out or groggy, and the same is true for children. They too need time away from school work, home work, demanding routines and their day-to-day minutiae. Even if unstructured, outdoor free play isn’t an option at a particular moment, outdoor time can be incorporated into a number of subjects, changing the scenery of the lesson and keeping children stimulated and engaged with their learning, without it feeling forced. From a practical perspective, moving around encourages blood flow to the brain, increasing alertness, focus and generally helping students (and teachers) to feel more awake. From a emotional perspective - it feels good! It improves happiness and children feel better. What could be a better aid to learning than that? 

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