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Swing Set Smarts: Extending Learning to the Playground

Outdoor Learning Games and Activities The link between physical activity and learning is strong. Children learn by doing and being actively engaged. Not only does physical activity promote physical development, it also supports cognitive, social and emotional development.

While research has proven these points, they are also evident when watching a child playing. Consider the classic game of “hot potato”. Children practice impulse control, planning, negotiation, and timing through this simple activity. These skills often develop through unstructured play, but they can purposefully be strengthened during planned activities as well.

The local playground and park (or even your backyard) is not just a place where children can run and play with abandon; it offers a wealth of cognitive and social-emotional learning opportunities as well.

Consider these common experiences and the learning and developmental opportunities they provide:

  • Meeting new children – reciprocal communication, self-confidence, sharing 
  • Playing games – negotiation, perspective taking, teamwork, turn taking, cooperation
  • Swings – gravity, force of motion, balance, action/reaction
  • Tag – decision-making, flexible thinking, risk-taking, responding to changed reality
  • Monkey bars –  self-regulation, coordination, planning, persistence
  • Pick-up sticks– math concepts, left-right orientation, strategic thinking
  • Play in sand, dirt, or even mud – sensory and texture awareness, states of matter
While ABCs and 123s are important, many teachers state that social-emotional competencies are key (and often missing) in children entering kindergarten. There are multiple ways to develop these, as well as higher-order thinking skills, during physical play.

Plan or encourage activities and games that require your child to:

  • Follow directions in sequence. Example: Red Light, Green Light
  • Regulate their behavior and control impulses. Example: Duck, Duck, Grey Duck (or goose)
  • Make decisions and adapt to change. Example: Simon Says
  • Work cooperatively with others and negotiate. Example: Jumping rope as a group
  • Take on a supportive role as well as a leadership role. Example: Follow the Leader
  • Take turns and share. Example: Hide and Seek.
  • Develop spatial awareness and consider distances (math). Example: Four Square
  • Experience success (any goal they set for themselves) based on their own abilities and knowledge without adult intervention. Example: Any game
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