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Child Development

Outdoor Winter Play for the Whole Family

Outdoor play promotes healthy child development and family connection.

Key points

  • Play is essential for child development and resiliency.
  • Risky outdoor play has a positive impact on social, physical, and personal development.
  • We can encourage and engage in outdoor winter play with the whole family.

Play is an expected part of childhood. In fact, play is an essential part of childhood. The importance of play, particularly unstructured, free play, has been well documented. We witness this not only in humans but in animals as well. Play is how our young explore the world, build relationships, and learn about risk.

Jared Walk/Unsplash
Jared Walk/Unsplash

Importance of Taking Risks

Risk-taking is when a child engages in any activity without a clear outcome and holds the potential for experiencing an adverse effect. It is an important skill that children need to develop in age-appropriate ways. It is paramount to differentiate risk-taking from danger, which is a threatening event or encounter that requires a grown-up to protect the child. As parents and supporters, we can strive to teach children the difference between risk and danger. And we can protect our children from danger while allowing them to take risks.

The world has changed in important ways since most of us, as adults now, were kids: Population density and urban sprawl looked different, we had fewer restrictions on where we could explore, and our sense of community trust was higher. It feels safer to keep children indoors, but studies have found that in order to grow up healthy and resilient, children need the freedom to explore and experience bumps and bruises. For example, in a systematic review of risky play, Brussoni and colleagues (2015) found positive effects of risky outdoor play with respect to physical activity, social health, social behaviours, injuries, and aggression.

Despite the endless possibilities the winter season brings for outdoor play, wintertime is sometimes misconstrued as a time to remain indoors. It’s easy to stay inside where we feel warm and cozy, but when we choose to shy away from the cold, we restrict our children’s learning environment. If we bundle up and teach our children to dress appropriately, playing outside and breathing the fresh, crisp air is healthy.

The goal of play and risky play is not for children to get hurt, but to allow our children to experience the thrill and excitement of testing their limits and abilities. Giving children the opportunity to see what they can do and to experiment and take risks develops their ability to perceive danger. It also increases self-regulation and provides potent stress relief. According to a recent Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, more adventure-based and "risky" opportunities for outdoor play amongst our children can lead to better-developed motor skills, social behaviour, independence, and conflict resolution skills. Outdoor play encourages healthy risk-taking, which is critical to teaching children how to navigate life’s challenges, manage the anxieties that accompany them, and become resilient.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses how outdoor play is essential for physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. It is a canvas for mindfulness. It builds self-efficacy, and it instills a sense of appreciation and awareness of interconnected systems. Research has also shown that in children, outdoor play ignites the imagination, instilling a sense of curiosity, wonder, amazement, and creativity (Gurholt & Sanderud, 2016; Tremblay et al., 2015). In a systematic review of the impact of access to green space on children, McCormick (2017) found that outdoor space promotes attention, memory, and self-discipline. It also promotes supportive social groups and moderates stress and behaviours associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Think of all the new challenges that are presented by the winter weather. Almost everything about the environment challenges us—walking on icy sidewalks, walking through the snow with heavy snow boots and bulky snow gear, shoveling snow, and learning how to pick things up while wearing mittens. We can consider how even the simplest act of playing in the snow encourages creativity, imagination, experimenting, problem-solving, and collaboration. Through playing outdoors this winter, children will learn to assess risk, problem solve and adapt while also building their self-confidence in navigating challenging situations and everything this season has to offer.

We know that play is not just essential for kids; it can be an important source of relaxation and stimulation for adults as well. It fuels our imagination, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. Play is also a gateway to empathy, communication, and relationships.

It is commonly understood that at some critical point in our lives, adult systems take over and consume us, leaving little room for the curiosity, wonder, and magic that is childhood. In these new, somewhat more enterprising systems, we become overwhelmed with the need to be productive, accountable, and efficient. We simply do not have the time for childhood freedoms, even if we long for them. We understand and, perhaps reluctantly, accept this as a rite of passage into adulthood. It is the cost of being a grown-up. This does not have to be the way. What happened to the innocence of making snow angels and catching snowflakes on our tongues? As adults, we can choose to lighten up, un-goal, be unproductive without guilt, and take back some freedom.

Ways to Encourage Family Outdoor Play

Here are just a few ways to encourage outdoor play for the whole family this winter:

  • Use the outdoors as a gateway to adventure and storytelling.
  • Go for a nature walk. Talk about what you see, smell, hear, and feel.
  • Create a family bucket list of things to do outdoors this winter.
  • Introduce loose parts play. Do something with rocks, twigs, pinecones, pine needles, leaves, grass, dirt, and other things you find in the yard or in parks.
  • Go tobogganing down the biggest hill you can find.
  • Spend a day at the ski hill or at the rink.
  • Mix food colouring and water in a spray bottle and use the snow as your canvas.
  • Build snow forts, snowmen, or other snow sculptures. Once you have all these defenses constructed, have a family snowball fight!

It is important to note that there can be barriers to outdoor experiences. Some urban life does not always lend itself to outdoor play. Blacktop and grey space are the antithesis of green space. If this is the case, the following are ways to engage with nature in urban settings, or bring nature in:

  • Instead of walking by, next time you are out, take notice of a tree on your street. Take pleasure in watching it change with the seasons. Take pictures or videos to capture the beauty of nature.
  • Reconfigure your work or home space to include a plant and a window with a view outdoors.
  • Incorporate nature breaks into your routine by bringing nature to you.
  • Create nature-themed art or create a nature-themed playlist.

Play reinforces the ties that bind us together and can heal minor relationship stress. When we play together, our moods improve, we feel less stressed, we drop our grudges, and we get back into sync. Play is essential to maintaining happy, healthy, and productive families.

Don’t let your days melt away this winter. Take time to get outside and play, because families who play together make memories together.

References

Brussoni, M., Gibbons, R., Gray, C., Takuro, I., Sandseter, E.B.H., et al. (2015). What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(6), 6423–54.

Gurholt, K. P., & Sanderud, J. R. (2016). Curious play: Children’s exploration of nature. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 16(4), 318–329.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.

McCormick, R. (2017). Does access to greenspace impact the mental well-being of children: A systematic review. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 37, 3-7.

Tremblay, M. et al. (2015). Position statement on active outdoor Play. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12, 6475-6505.

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