Why Playing Outdoors Just Might Make Us Smarter.

I am often asked – how can I help my child do well in school? My response – read to your child, get them a library card and let them play outside. My last piece of advice is often met with some skepticism.

IMG_2024 Play is all about feel good emotions and experiences that are hard to quantify, spending time doing things that aren’t deemed important or serious. I soon learned as a teacher that if I was telling parents that letting their children play and that playing together as a family, would support their children’s success in school, I needed to have a very clear explanation and some solid research to back up my wild claim.

The dictionary definition of lollygag: To spend time doing things that are not useful or serious.

Trust me – the ability to lollygag outdoors is a skill I’ve honed over a lifetime. In fact my family is convinced there should be a picture of me in the dictionary next to the definition. For many of us, playing is often equated with lollygagging! Clearly play is not taking life seriously!

And yet from my own personal experience play activities have helped me solve some of life’s more intractable problems, filled me with a sense of well-being and to be honest, are just plain old fun.
One of my favorite books I came across in my research on the topic of play is by Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play entitled Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. The title alone covers all the bases – problem solving, daydreaming and well-being, body and soul.
Stuart Brown describes a presentation he is giving and the dubious expressions on the faces of the engineers for whom the vague, emotionally laden notion of play can never be taken seriously without some coherent definition and data to support it. I know that look!


IMG_2097He explains, play is done for its own sake, seemingly purposeless and it makes us feel good. We are fully engaged, “in the zone”, we stop thinking about the fact we’re thinking when we’re playing and in so doing open ourselves up to discovery. Play is improvisational – we’re not locked into a particular way of doing things. We leave ourselves open to chance, give ourselves permission to lollygag, and in so doing might discover new insights, ways of being, of thinking, of moving. Lastly, because it’s fun we want to keep doing it and we devise ways of continuing the activity or returning to it as soon as we can.
In addition, Brown cites research by neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp. He shows that when we’re involved in active play, a family of proteins in our brain known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, responsible for the support and development of nerve growth, are stimulated in the amygdala, the part of our brain where emotions are processed, and within the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for many of the cognitive functions such as the ability to organize our thoughts, sift through relevant, irrelevant information and plan for the future.

It turns out that play is good for us at all stages of our life no matter our age. In fact, it’s more than just good, it’s essential to our healthy development, physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially.
Most importantly, Brown reminds us

play is a state of mind rather than an activity.

Sometimes we have to put ourselves into the proper emotional state to play. Sometimes an activity becomes play when it puts us into that emotional state. A lifetime of experience has shown me that I’m at my most creative, my most productive, better equipped to solve problems and to make connections when my play mind is activated, whether I’m riding my bike, climbing a mountain, walking the dog or in the classroom.

I rest my case. All that playing outdoors, digging in the dirt and running through the woods is not only good for me but quite possibly, it’s making me smarter!

About Sheila

I started Play Without Ceilings to share my passion for getting outdoors to enjoy a nature inspired, healthier, happier, play full lifestyle. I grew up in England and now live in the Pacific Northwest. I love all things outdoors from lying in the grass listening to birdsong to hiking mountains and every outside moment in between. Thanks for stopping by and may you find inspiration for your next adventure.

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