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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Perspectives: The Power of Outdoor Play (Nov. 2015)

Sara Merz, Director

Sara Merz, Director

Did you know that for brain development in kids, the most important play is “socio-dramatic play”  (playing pretend with others), and more of this play happens outdoors than in any other environment? I was thrilled to be at part of our partner Natural Learning Initiative’s conference last month, and I learned some amazing research about the impact of outdoor play on children.

We know that playing outdoors is part of kids getting the physical activity they need. What I learned was that with playful learning throughout the day, both indoors and outdoors, standardized tests scores increase – even for poor kids.

The key is developing “executive functioning (EF)” skills: focus, self-control, persistence/engagement, perspective taking, communication skills, making connections, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity flexibility, taking on challenges. They lead to academic success. And kids with higher EF skills score 200 points higher on the SAT!

Executive functioning:

  • happens in frontal cortex of brain
  • shows up on MRIs
  • develops from ages 0-5 – and doesn’t shift much after age 5!
  • is highly correlated with positive outcomes in math and reading

Playing outdoors also:

  • increases physical activity level
  • improves immune systems
  • stimulates creativity
  • reduces anxiety
  • increases attention span, imagination, and respect for other living things
  • promotes problem solving and leadership skills
  • widens vocabulary, improves listening skills, improved communication skills
  • encourages cooperative play,
  • helps children notice patterns, and similarities and differences
  • strengthens upper body strength in kids
  • increases persistence
  • and is fun!

This wonderful session was led by Marcy Guddemi, PhD, MBA, President and CEO, Gesell Institute of Child Development, Yale University.

NLI led the Preventing Obesity by Design (POD) work at child care facilities, which is different from our Farm to Child Care work, but complimentary. The child care centers involved in POD have been some of the highest-performing Farm to Child Care centers.

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