Ask the Expert – The Importance of Outside Play

Take a moment to remember back to your childhood. If your childhood was anything like mine, I spent more time outside than anything else. My friends and I would play in the rain, in sandboxes, mud puddles, walking through the woods, climbing trees, swimming, and so much more. Over the last several years the idea of outside play seems to be slowly disappearing and, consequently, there also seems to be a rise in children who have difficulties with sensory processing.

Sensory processing is the way in which our body processes sensory information from the environment (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound balance, movement, etc). We learn how to both experience and cope with sensory information even as an infant when we first see and feel the world we have been brought into.

So how does the outside environment play a role in our ability to experience and cope with sensory information? Being outside provides many sensory experiences that being inside just can’t give you, for example: the warmth of the sun, the smell of fresh cut grass, the feel of sand running through your fingers, or the feeling of grass on your feet. The natural play of the environment helps your child to strengthen all their senses which are used naturally throughout their daily lives all the way through adulthood.

Without a strong sensory system, children begin to have difficulties coping with things like varying levels of lights/sounds, difficulty tolerating a sense of touch (on their hands, feet, or even their mouths), difficulty with balance, and coordination. Some children already struggle with some of these areas due to other developmental challenges and therefore it is just as important for them to experience outside play. No matter what your child’s developmental challenges or strengths are, outside play is a critical aspect to their development. With every season, you can find outdoor play beneficial so here are a few examples of how to engage your child in outdoor play and the benefits they can have:

Playing with sand/grass on hands/feet: helps develop sense of touch on both hands and feet
Pulling on the grass: helps develop and regulate upper body strength
Playing in the mud: helps develop a sense of touch, helps tolerate messy and sticky textures (important for feeding)
Rolling/crawling/walking/jumping in leaf piles: helps develop balance on uneven surfaces, understanding of where their body is in space
Playing in the rain or small pool: helps tolerate cold/wet textures (also important for feeding)
Rolling/Crawling/walking around in the grass: helps develop balance on uneven surfaces, understanding of where their body is in space
Outside free play in different seasons: helps regulate body temperature
Climbing/Running: helps develop strength, balance, understanding of where their body is in space
Climbing in trees: balance, strength, understanding of where their body is in space
Building outside forts: helps with strength, balance, understanding of where their body is in space
Water play/Swimming: helps develop strength, coordination, endurance, understanding of where their body is in space, breath support

Nicole Rollier, OTR/L, is an experienced Pediatric Occupational Therapist who is an integral part of both United Ability’s Hand In Hand Early Intervention Program and the Ability Clinic Outpatient program. She began working for United Ability in 2014 and currently renders home based services to families in our Early Intervention Program as well as services in our United Ability Clinic as a pediatric outpatient therapist. Nicole has specialty trainings in Handwriting Without Tears, Talk Tools Sensory Oral Motor Pre-Feeding Therapy, and the Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) Feeding approach to Feeding.
If you or someone you care for are interested in our programs, please contact the Ability Clinic at 205-944-3944.

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