Why Play Outdoors?
Through physical play outdoors, your child develops confidence in herself as she sees her skills grow: "Watch me climb the monkey bars, look how high I can swing. Watch me, watch me!" A child who is initially reluctant to go down the tall slide feels a great deal of personal pride when he finally musters up the courage to do so.
This self-confidence can translate into social confidence: Children who feel good about their physical abilities tend to view themselves more positively in general. This generalized feeling of competence finds expression easily as children approach other children to play, offer suggestions for solving problems or conflicts that arise during play, and negotiate their way through play episodes that change tone, content, and direction.
Keep in mind that opportunities for social growth can occur even when there are conflicts. Some disagreements are inevitable as children interact, play out various themes, and compete for the same play equipment. However, providing these outdoor opportunities for learning social skills (such as sharing, using language, including others in play, turn taking, developing play "manners"), we can help our children become more socially confident as they approach new play situations.
As your child gets into her preschool years, she will take turns and, with her play partners, have some shared sense about where their play is headed (though don't be surprised if she and her friends don't arrive at the planned outcome). "Let's play fire station," your child and her pals might decide. An old cardboard box, the swing set, or a park bench might become the fire station; a trike or wagon, a fire truck; the garden fence or sandbox, a house on fire. Add a hose, and they'll spray water (all over). All of these events may be happening at the same time, but they will not necessarily be "coordinated." In other words, your preschooler may be pretending to put out the fire while her pals are still driving the fire truck to the scene.
Outdoor play is critically important to the social development of children this age, and to girls in particular when it comes to building self-confidence. Girls are more assertive in their action-oriented play outdoors than they are in their dramatic play indoors. In addition, children learn to be more empathic and less through social play, and they develop more skills for coping with conflict. As children engage in active play with their peers, siblings, and newfound playmates in public parks, they have opportunities to develop cooperation and leadership skills as play episodes ebb and flow.
- Safari. Take a collection of plastic animals to your local park or even your backyard. When your child and his friends aren't looking, hide them. Now go on a safari to find the animals. Children can capture the animals with butterfly nets. If you have multiple animals of the same types, children can hunt in teams to find one of each kind of animal.
- Leafhoppers. This is one for autumn. Suggest to your preschooler and his friends that they gather the fallen, leftover crunchy leaves from your yard or park. If there are enough, encourage the kids to make piles varying distances apart. The leaves can be in straight lines opposite each other or in a "trail" leading from one object (bench, boulder, path, and so on) or area to another. Children can then play leafhopper as they jump from pile to pile. A variation is to step only on leaves or objects, but not the grass or the ground.
Play Props to Take Outside
You can spark social interaction outdoors by creating opportunities for theme-based play. While organized sports offer occasions for social interaction, they tend to be more controlled and goal-focused. "Free play" is more child-directed.
- To inspire a pizza delivery game: Provide pizza boxes, receipt books, plastic utensils, aprons, and plastic mixing bowls.
- For outdoor blocks: Visit a home under construction and ask the framing crew foreman if you can have scrap pieces of wood. Gather short pieces — one foot and under in length. (Stay away from pressure-treated wood because it contains toxins.) You and your kids can smooth them off with sandpaper and voila! ... outdoor blocks. Combine the blocks with small-scale construction toys, straws, shovels, rubber bands, and string, and children can create wonderfully complex construction sites.
- For "houses" or "tents": Acquire longer lengths of lumber and let children stack and build with them. Combine the longer lengths with plastic crates (available at most discount stores), cardboard boxes, and old shower curtains. Your kindergartner and his friends can create structures that encourage them to use social skills as they cooperate to build them play in them.
Read about outdoor play for babies and toddlers.