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Why is outdoor play and learning so important for my child?

For most parents and caregivers, it probably does not come as a surprise that children today spend less time outdoors than previous generations. In fact, according to several studies, children spend half as much time outdoors as children did 20 years ago. Most of the blame can be attributed to modern children’s enormous use of passive technology such as computers, smart phones and other forms of entertainment and media.  But parents and caregivers also contribute to kids not spending enough time outside—whether it be for safety concerns or simply not stressing the importance of being active in the great outdoors.


Importance of Outdoor Play

Why is it so important for a child to play and learn outside anyway? First of all, studies show that playing outside has incredible physical, intellectual, and social benefits—particularly for children under the age of five. Being outdoors also causes a child to engage all their senses—such as sight, sound, hearing and touch—all of which boost their perceptual abilities. Being outdoors can also help a child reduce stress, boost their immunity, help develop risk-taking sensibilities and grow their appreciation for the outside world. 

Because of all the many benefits of being outdoors and how it helps make children healthier, stronger, more imaginative and better communicators, most quality child care programs as well as the ABC Quality program are putting a greater emphasis on outdoor play and learning.

To help educate child care providers and the general public about the importance of outdoor play and education, ABC Quality, Child Care Licensing and other community partners have used educational resources developed by the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a research and extension program of the College of Design, North Carolina State University. NLI’s mission is to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children and their families.  NLI works with multidisciplinary partners like ABC Quality to reinforce the critical role of the natural world to support healthy child development, pro-social values, and motivation of learning across all subject areas.

Child care programs committed to increasing the quality of their outdoor learning environments have the opportunity to participate in online coursework that helps establish consistent, foundational knowledge of naturalized, outdoor learning environments in their program. Providers collaborate with statewide partners like the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), Division of Early Care & Education and ABC Quality for technical assistance and training opportunities to incorporate the core principles of nature-based environments that support a child’s overall development. NLI also helps child care programs establish natural learning environments that support overall child development and well-being, including a variety of play and learning settings through the outdoor space (figure eight pathways, gardens, animal habitats, and nature play and learning areas).

Outdoor Learning Environments

Along with NLI coursework, ABC Quality also promotes outdoor learning environments and programs created by Claire Warden, an educational consultant who stresses the importance of outdoor play in child care programs. Warden’s outdoor learning environment philosophy and coursework promotes the importance of outdoor play in child care programs and how it plays a huge part in a child’s overall healthy development, with topics that include obesity prevention and nutrition in addition to physical and mental well-being. Along with other partnering agencies like DHEC and the DSS Division of Early Care & Education, ABC Quality has helped identify child care programs interested in enhancing their outdoor learning environments, assessing the quality of existing outdoor environments, and providing guidance to child care program directors and staff to encourage program wide-improvements.

Outdoor Play and ABC Quality Providers 

Child care programs that participate in ABC Quality are required to reflect on their schedules and implement outdoor time daily for children enrolled in their program.  Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, ABC Quality has also encouraged child care programs to extend outdoor time with children for the physical health benefits. Quality child care programs should also provide daily active outdoor play for all children, noting the frequency and the amount of time.

When it comes to finding programs that promote outdoor play, ABC Quality reminds parents and caregivers that regardless of the location of a child care center (rural, suburbs, urban) there are opportunities for children to interact with nature and explore the outdoor environment.

Outdoor Play: What to look for in a child care program

If you are a parent or caregiver looking for child care programs that promote outdoor play and learning, consider the following:

  • Ask your child care program, what type of outdoor environment activities are available to enhance your child’s physical development.
  • Make sure that a child care program has a variety of activities in their outdoor learning environment that may include the following:
    • Loose Parts – Found objects or play materials such as twigs, stones, leaves, cookies, and recyclable objects can increase play and learning.
    • Natural Construction – Natural and manufactured building materials (no sharp edges) are available for safe construction of model buildings.
    • Water Play – Children love to transport water from one place to another using cups, buckets, water plants or small tubs to float objects.
    • Mud Play – Discovering the earth’s texture by digging, piling and scooping is a stimulating sensory experience for all age groups.
    • Music Play – Bring the musical instruments outside or create homemade instruments with pots, pans, spoons, boxes and sticks.
    • Shade – With hot South Carolina summers, it’s important to protect children from sun damage, heat stroke and other health issues related to high temperatures.  Providing shade increases the amount of time children can spend outdoors exploring.
  • Be sure that a provider encourages appropriate clothing for the weather and has adequate supervision.


Creating a Physical Activity Policy 

Natural Learning Institute

Claire Warden and her outdoor learning environment philosophy


By ABC Quality Team on October 22, 2020