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  • Bearfoot OT

Playing Hard is Working Hard: Learning Through Play

Pediatric occupational therapists often get asked, “Do you play all day?”

YUP. That’s why we love our job. Play is a child’s primary occupation, or how they meaningfully occupy their time and it lays the foundation for how children learn a variety of skills to develop into a healthy, confident, successful human.

Can children learn from simply playing? Oh my gosh, YES!

What might look “simple” is actually very complex and supports the development of many other skills.

Benefits of Play⁷

Play promotes development of:

  • Cognition - executive function such as negotiation, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, attention, self-control, and creativity

  • Language - communicating to negotiate rules or solve disputes

  • Social skills - listening to directions, advocating, collaborating, cooperating, negotiating, taking turns, creating warm relationship

  • Motor skills - building fine/gross motor coordination, strength, balance, endurance

  • Self-regulation - dealing with constant sensory input and emotions

  • Math - numerosity

Those are just a few examples – the power of play is boundless! Let’s take two kids on the playground for example. We’ll call them Jack and Jill.

Jack: Let’s play hide-and-seek!

Jill: Ok! How do we play? (cooperation)

Jack: Someone closes their eyes and counts while someone else hides. We can’t go past the swings or the grass. (communication, negotiation)

Jill: Cool! I want to go seek first! (attention, advocacy)

Jack: Fine! Count to 20! (flexibility)

Jill: *counts while closing her eyes* (numerosity, impulse control)

Jack: *looks around to find a hiding space* (problem solving)

Jill: 20! *looks, runs, climbs, kneels to find Jack* (vision, gross motor)

Jack: Ugh! You found me! My turn to seek! (emotional regulation, turn taking)

All of this is happening on a busy playground while having to process a variety of sensory information, such as hearing other kids scream, seeing play structures and moving bodies, and running on mulch, concrete, or grass.

So many skills involved in play! But sometimes, it doesn’t go as smoothly as the scenario above, and that’s OK! OT can help support your child in developing these skills.

Since Bearfoot provides nature-based OT, we just had to dive deeper into the benefits of outdoor play.

Benefits of Natural Outdoor Play

Outdoor play supports:

  • Academics - greater attention and academic performance⁶

  • Physical skills - increased physical activity resulting in improved balance, coordination, and motor fitness compared to peers playing on playgrounds⁴

  • Overall health - decreased chronic conditions, such as vitamin D deficiency, obesity, asthma, ADHD, and depression⁶

  • Emotional health - facilitated secretion of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that supports calmness, attention, memory, and feelings of wellbeing, while also controlling violence, depression, and suicidal impulses⁶

  • Sleep hygiene - enhanced sleep through sleep-inducing natural light and stress relief⁴

  • Body functions - Supported function and health of the immune systems, metabolism, heart, lungs, bones, muscles, joints, and eyes⁶

  • Socialization - encouraged imaginative play, exploration and discovery, providing opportunities for social interactions from interested peers⁵

We talk more about the benefits of outdoor play here. Children especially benefit from play that is less structured and supervised, and more challenging, adventurous, and risky¹.

But it’s too dangerous!

Unstructured outdoor play definitely has its risks, but limiting but risky play can lead to more injuries as kids seek out opportunities elsewhere³. Risky play promotes important skills needed at all ages such as self-knowledge and problem solving to negotiate boundaries and handle challenges². Kids want opportunities to demonstrate competence and maturity by assessing risk for themselves, displaying courage, and exhibiting physical abilities³. Kids learn to understand their own abilities, as well as abilities of their peers, allowing collaboration for play and safety. Risky play also supports development of coping strategies in fear-inducing situations. Decreasing supervision can actually help make kids safer. Want to know even more? Check out this article.

Ways you can encourage your child to go outside

Here are some ways you can encourage your child to go outside.

  • Go outside with your child. Kids learn by observing and most likely want to play with you.

  • Plan play dates with other families and children. The more the merrier!

  • Follow your child’s interest. If they like drawing or superheroes, bring it outside!

  • Bring indoor activities outside. Take a meal or a favorite toy outdoors.

  • Incorporate outdoor play into your child’s daily routine. For example, stop at the park on your way home from school

  • Make an activity jar. Provide initial guidance for what to do. Some ideas include going to the park, watering plants, blowing bubbles, or drawing with chalk.

  • Set up a scavenger hunt. Build on your child’s interests and incorporate what they love.

Love research? We do too! Check out our references!


  1. Alexander, S. A., Frohlich, K. L., & Fusco, C. (2014). Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children's play. Health promotion international, 29(1), 155–164.

  2. Bento, G., & Dias, G. (2017). The importance of outdoor play for young children's healthy development. Porto Biomedical Journal, 2(5), 157-160.

  3. Brussoni, M., Olsen, L. L., Pike, I., & Sleet, D. A. (2012). Risky play and children's safety: balancing priorities for optimal child development. International journal of environmental research and public health, 9(9), 3134–3148.

  4. Dowdell, K., Gray, T.L., & Malone, K.A. (2011). Nature and its Influence on Children’s Outdoor Play. Australian Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 15, 24-35.

  5. Park, M., & Riley, J. Play in natural outdoor environments: a healthy choice. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 43(2), 22-28.

  6. Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, et al; AAP COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH, AAP COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA. (2018) The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics.142(3):e20182058

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