occupational therapists

Occupational Therapists: Why Kids Need More Time to Play Outside

Children love to play, and good thing too because it’s great for their development! Our occupational therapists can cite decades of research detailing the ways in which play is a critical to facilitating physical, cognitive and language development for children. It’s one of the reasons FOCUS Therapy Fort Myers makes every session with children one in which we invite our clients if they want to”come play” rather than “come and do some therapy.” We find ways to engage children that they find interesting, while also working on strengthening their deficits.

Outdoor play in particular has many benefits. Children commonly assigned occupational therapy, such as those Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, premature birth or fetal alcohol syndrome, are at high risk for poor motor development. Engaging them in “motor play” as early and often as possible is important. Once they are ambulatory (i.e., moving), children should be given more opportunity to explore the world outside. Not only do they get a fun chance to work on those motor development skills, they can connect with parents, siblings and other peers and are also less likely to become obese later in life (sparing them a host of health problems in the long-run).

Substantial research concludes children who spent time outdoors do better with interpersonal relationships with peers, have less aggression and more effectively self-regulate. Occupational therapists know children with delays and disabilities especially thrive with outdoor play because they get an opportunity to work on essential development of strength, reflexes, concentration and balance while having fun doing it.

We know South Florida at the height of summer may not be the most ideal for spending many long hours outside. However, if you can plan outings or activities first thing in the morning or those that involve opportunities to cool off – in the water, in the shade or indoors (with plenty of cold water to drink, of course) – the better the chances your child will get the most from it.

Outside Play Helps Children With Sensory Input/ Regulation

Just from a sensory perspective, outdoor play is beneficial because it can:

  • Be calming and/ or alerting;
  • Help with listening skills;
  • Encourage kids to take risks/ step outside their comfort zone;
  • Encourages them to use their sense of touch;
  • Help with body awareness;
  • Promotes self control and social development;
  • Improves physical health.

An occupational therapist from New Hampshire, author of the book, “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children,” explained recently in an interview that in her experience, children who have more opportunity for outdoor play (especially unstructured/ free play) tend to be stronger, have better balance and fewer behavior problems. These changes are “dramatic” in some cases, she said.

Prioritizing Outdoor Play

The author recommends at least three hours of outdoor play a day for children. Whether that level of free time or outdoor play is feasible for your child or your schedule is up to you, but striving for it – especially when our kids’ schedule is more flexible – can benefit them long-term. This is especially true when national statistics reveal many American children are sitting for up to nine hours every day – when they’re commuting to-and-from school, therapy, daycare and other activities, as well as in class and at home in front of the television or doing homework.

Organized sports might not exactly be enough. Soccer, for example, is a great sport, but in most cases, children are upright and running or standing. What they really need for that outdoor sensory stimulation are things like going upside down, spinning in circles, walking backward or rolling down a hill – all of which helps improve balance and body awareness. Playgrounds can be excellent for this kind of sensory input, but so too can parks with open fields or activities that involve swimming or water play.

If you’re concerned your child may not be ready to take on the outside world by themselves, check out this outdoor sensory diet activities for the back yard that can help you facilitate independence and play, while still being engaged or watchful.

FOCUS offers occupational therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

The Physical Play and Motor Development of Young Children: A Review of Literature and Implications for Practice, 2014, Center for Early Childhood Education, Eastern Connecticut State University

More Blog Entries:

OT Travel Tips for Families of Children With Special Needs, July 15, 2018, Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Blog

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