The Importance of Outdoor Play for Early Years Children's Early Years expert Jenny Mollon discusses why children need to go beyond the air conditioning and and explore the world outside.
The Importance of Outdoor Play for Early Years Children
By David Westley
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Young children are naturally drawn to outdoor play. It is an opportunity to build their physical strength, interact sociably with friends and explore the wider, natural world.

Growing up, many of us will remember being told to go outside and “find something” to do. These days, nursery age children seem to spend less and less time outdoors and more inside concentrating on learning and academic development.

This is an especially pressing issue during the hottest months of the year here in the UAE. Children are inside at school or in childcare and inside at home and at rest too. Parents are understandably worried about the negative effects of heat, dehydration and sun exposure and wish to protect their child by keeping him or her indoors.

However the hot weather is not all year around, and there are activities we can explore to lengthen the time spent beyond the AC. Here explores how to make the most of outdoor play, and what the benefits will be for your child.


The Benefits of Outdoor Play
Children have an innate need to play and to learn through activity. The sheer exuberance of children outdoors is a very different energy to children playing inside. Without the confinements of “indoors”, children are more likely to run, jump, swing, scoot – a whole multitude of energetic movements.

Children are also more likely to use their whole body in outdoor play – even the simple act of using a climbing frame requires the use of many different muscle groups. Fine motor skills (so important for handwriting when school age comes!) can be developed in many ways outdoors – exploring the structure of plants and natural materials such as bark, planting seeds and playing and constructing in sand.


Children and Nature
In recent years, a wealth of academic research has shown that time spent in green, natural environments aids child development in many important ways.

Studies have shown that children who are surrounded by and regularly exposed to nature have better concentration skills, play more imaginatively and develop a broader vocabulary than those confined to urban environments.

Many nurseries in the UAE have taken this on board and try to incorporate nature into the everyday life of the children in their care. One such nursery is Home Grown Nursery (branches in Safa and Umm Suqueim) which has taken an appreciation of nature to the core of their philosophy. As Director of Education, Eithne Mulhern tells us:

“The gardens at Home Grown are a thoughtfully created natural play environment for children. When our children play outdoors, they use their imagination and create spaces and places that are beyond their wildest dreams. The children call our nature trail 'the jungle'. The Home Grown gardens are not full of plastic toys - rather we source Eco or sustainable play equipment and we allow the children space to move around freely. Other outdoor sessions are more focused using our outdoor classroom and shaded areas to reinforce the seven learning areas of the EYFS curriculum (UK) in the fresh air. We pride ourselves on our outdoor spaces, creating a haven for little people, giving them freedom and choices as well as the opportunity to be at one with nature on a daily basis.”

Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency has largely been eradicated in Western countries but remains a pressing issue in Asia and the MENA region. Vitamin D is vital for strong, healthy bones and has been also linked to:

• Cardiovascular disease
• Cognitive impairment in older adults
• Severe asthma in children
• Some forms of cancer

Diet can provide some Vitamin D (it occurs naturally in oily fish, fish liver oil and egg yolks, whilst some dairy and grain products can be fortified with vitamin D at the point of production) but the most important source of this vital nutrient is skin exposure to sunlight.

It may seem that we are blessed with ideal conditions for sun exposure in the UAE, but several factors limit time spent in the sun – the most prevalent of these in young children being:

• Limited time spent outdoors.
Concerns over the searing heat confines many of us to a life led indoors – especially during the hottest summer months

• Liberal use of sun screen.
Although vital for protection against skin cancer, sun screen will inhibit the natural production of Vitamin D

Ensuring your child has regular periods of time spent outdoors in the sunshine along with a balanced diet should provide all the Vitamin D that they need. If you remain concerned, see your Paediatrician.


How nurseries can help – what to look for
Your child may spend significant chunks of their early years in nursery. Ensuring your child is able to play outdoors in a high quality environment should be an important factor when choosing a nursery.

Ask to see not only all the outdoor areas, but the class timetable in order to assess just how much time will be spent outside. Look for teachers who are keen to maximise time spent outdoors (even just a few minutes in the hottest months). We are blessed with many months of good weather in the UAE, when outdoor areas can be used for a whole host activities – even painting, crafts, story time, music and dance can be delivered al fresco. Outdoor areas should be partially shaded – still allowing direct sunlight in some area (for that all important Vitamin D blast).


Swimming in Nurseries
A nursery with a swimming pool can offer a great way for your child to be active outdoors all year round.

Swimming is important for health, coordination, water safety and later participation in water sports.

That said, a nursery with a pool is one with a significant safety hazard, which must be managed appropriately. The pool should be fenced and the nursery should have a rigid, documented policy which is available for prospective parents to view.

Enquire as to the qualifications of swim instructors and be sure that the nursery offers a high staff to child ratio when in and around water.


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