From the very beginning, the importance of physical activity for babies and young children is impressed upon parents.
It starts innocently enough, with tummy time and “exercise” mats. Young children next move on to playground time and planned playdates, and then to team sports and other forms of athletic competition. Because physical activity is so important, many parents feel compelled to make specific plans in order to get “enough” of it. In fact, many parents face immense societal pressure to schedule all of our little ones’ time, including (but not limited to) their physical activity. But just as unscheduled indoor play is important for a child’s development, kids also need time to play outside without any sort of looming agenda.
For those parents who do not have easy access to a backyard, and whose neighborhood park is more than a few blocks away, the simplest answer is to take more walks! Whether you are heading to a specific destination or just letting your child explore nearby lawns and rock gardens, whether you head to a nature preserve or just stick to your own neighborhood, going for a walk is a fantastic way for your child to build all sorts of important skills.
Sure, letting your kid walk will make the journey take at least twice as long as it otherwise might. And you might get some strange looks from other parents whose kids are neatly contained within a stroller. But overall, there are a ton of benefits to letting your child walk more, including many you might not have thought of.
Gross Motor Skills. Aside from the obvious, getting outdoors gives children time and space to practice a wide variety of gross motor skills. Children will alternate between walking and running, likely doing more of the latter, possibly with some skipping or jumping thrown in. They may practice walking backwards or hopping on one foot. Depending on the area where you are walking, the child may have some opportunities to climb on small rocks or through the low branches of trees, and all in an area where you can be there to supervise and help them learn their limits. Outdoor walks also give plenty of chances for children to develop their senses of balance and coordination, whether it’s walking along the (inside) edge of the sidewalk, tightrope walking on the top of a low wall, or even just walking across an uneven hillside.
Fine Motor Skills. A large portion of any walk will likely be taken up by your child practicing their fine motor skills in various ways. You might be surprised by how much time a kid can spend crouching down and poking around in the dirt! Children might enjoy drawing designs in the dirt or sand with their fingers or a stick. They might stack up rocks. They might use their clever little fingers to pick up nuts or leaves, or even try to nab a nearby lizard. They might find dandelions and delight in blowing the seeds off. The possibilities are endless, and all of them engage the body and brain.
Spatial Awareness. Have you ever seen your child stand up too fast while underneath the dining room table? After it happens a few times, the child learns to crawl out first, or to stand up more slowly in order to prevent another bonk. This is called spatial awareness, and it is defined as the ability to be aware of oneself in space. Outdoor exploration is a great way for kids to develop this sense of where they exist in relation to everything else around them! Children love seeing how tight of a space between the bushes they can fit through, or whether they can walk underneath those low hanging branches without bumping their heads, or whether that thick grass is something they can wade through without stumbling.
Life Skills. It’s hard to truly pin down the many valuable life skills a child can build on while walking outdoors, but here are some examples. Children get opportunities to practice listening to their parents and following instructions. Slow down and wait for Mama; hold my hand while we cross the street; don’t go any further than those yellow flowers until Daddy catches up. Parents can help kids think about natural consequences and how their actions affect others. If you leave that stick there, someone else might trip over it! If you throw your tennis ball and it goes out into the street, we can’t go out and get it because it’s dangerous. Children learn how to cross the street safely and how to share the sidewalk with other pedestrians. Outdoor walks present many different opportunities for learning, depending on your environment and the ages of your kids: identifying bugs/birds/clouds, practicing letter identification or reading using street signs, picking out colors, drawing in the dirt, or even things like building campfires out of sticks or talking about how the weather works.
Imagination and playtime. Is there anything better than watching your children joyfully playing outside? There are so many simple ways for a child to entertain themselves when they are given free reign to do so. Kids love stomping in puddles after a rainy night, or running through crisp, frosty grass on a cold morning, or wading through piles of crunchy leaves in the autumn. They love making up stories about what’s going on in the world of the ants or roly polys, or thinking about what a dog might be saying when it barks, or imagining what the birds are discussing up in the trees. Get involved in their games, or invent some new ones for you and your child to enjoy together!
Physical Benefits. Let’s not forget that there are a myriad of physical benefits to getting in more outdoor playtime. In the United States, approximately 17% of children ages 2-19 are considered obese; while the rate has been going down for very young children, more than 8% of kids ages 2-5 are still far too heavy for their size (http://www.cdc.gov/ obesity/data/childhood.html). There are, of course, many issues contributing to this problem, but a lack of physical activity is certainly a big part. Many kids spend far too much time watching television or playing games on their very own tablet computers. Getting your kids outside and going for a walk is a definite step in the right direction! There are other major benefits, too. Being active helps a child build strength and stamina while helping to ensure solid bone density. All that sunshine helps reduce a child’s risk for vitamin D deficiency, an issue that has become more common as kids spend more time indoors and parents apply sunscreen before they leave the house.
Unobstructed outdoor playtime is good for a child’s body and their brain, and will help them develop and improve many important skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. So get outside!