Outdoor Play Helps Kids Build Their Reading And Writing Skills

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

We go outdoors as much as possible—because being inside with four kids is basically the worst. I know there are benefits to outdoor play, such as vitamin D exposure and burning energy via gross motor activities, but what I didn’t know until now? All the bike-riding and ball-catching helps my kids learn to read and write.

When I first heard this, I admit I was skeptical. What’s the connection between shooting baskets and learning to sound out words? How does rolling around in the grass and splashing in puddles emphasize forming letters? After all, despite the research telling us otherwise, kids have very limited recess and a whole lot of classroom time. Aren’t all those worksheets supposed to teach our children how to write? And those early reader books—aren’t they the gateway to a love of reading?

Books are important. Worksheet learning is a staple in American classrooms. Here’s what’s missing. More outdoor play where exploration and gross motor skills are treated as they are—a learning experience. Playing tag with friends can help your child read and write? Yup.

As Melissa McKaig–an occupational therapist in public school settings–explained to Scary Mommy, forcing preschoolers to write at too young an age is completely pointless. They have yet to develop the hand strength and coordination to form their letters. So what can parents, who yearn to see our kids succeed, do? Send our kids outside. Yes, you read that correctly.

Play that engages all the senses and especially play that strengthens hands, such as learning to use the monkey bars, helps kids learn to write. What doesn’t help? Forcing kids to sit at the dining table and desperately bribe them to write a single letter over and over again. All this does is create frustration for the parent and child.

Another benefit to outdoor play when it comes to our children learning to read and write? Their vision. Too much close-up work strains eyes—and tired eyes make it very hard for a child to concentrate and see properly to do the work that is asked of them. Dr. Julie Steinhauer, a developmental optometrist, shared with Scary Mommy, “Studies show that kids who spend a lot of time indoors are more likely to be nearsighted and may struggle to see more clearly in school.”

How does going outside help? Dr. Steinhauer said that outdoor play “helps train the brain how to coordinate the body, which is important for binocular coordination of the eyes, skills necessary for reading and writing.” She added that outdoor play is critical for a child’s physical and cognitive development.

For certain, free and outdoor play helps foster creativity. Kids who are “bored” learn to invent their own fun. By building a fort out of sticks, hiking up and down a hill, or playing with bugs, children engage in storytelling—whether it’s aloud or in their own heads. This, in turn, generates a love of learning and reading. They learn to predict what’s coming up next in a story. Furthermore, with every manipulation of their hands—like when they’re playing in a sandbox or collecting dandelions—they are building necessary hand strength necessary for writing.

It’s really that simple. More outdoor play equals a stronger student. What doesn’t? Forcing the child’s hand (pun intended) to pick up a pencil or grab a book. If they have the foundational skills—some of which they gain from outdoor play—they are naturally going to be more likely to beg you to take them to the library to choose their next read.

As we settle into the dead of winter where many of us face brutally cold temperatures and a whole lot of illness, don’t let the inability to head outside stop you from guiding your children in the right direction. As a former college writing teacher, I encourage parents to creatively help their children love reading and writing. It’s really quite simple, too.

Keep books all around your home, including graphic novels and magazines. Remember, not all kids enjoy reading the same types of materials. Don’t discount letting your kids read what piques their interest, including the back of the cereal box, junk mail, or a recipe. Also, allow them to read books above or below their current level if they so choose–and definitely ask them what their preferred genre is. Do they like scary books? Books about dogs? Every word matters.

Encourage writing on-the-go. Get clipboards and paper from the dollar store to keep in the car and use while waiting at one kid’s sports practice. Older kids can journal, follow directions from how-to-draw books, or even engage in good, old-fashioned crossword and word search puzzles. It’s shockingly simple … and inexpensive.

These allow for independent learning–but if you want to get involved, there are tons of literacy board games you can play as a family that encourage reading, writing, or both. My older girls like Scattergories, for example. I played Scrabble with my mom when I was a tween. Establish a family game night, complete with snacks and pjs. Show your kids that literacy skills don’t have to be boring.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what you shouldn’t do during the long, cold, winter months? Count on electronics to teach your kid how to read and write. Apps have their place and can certainly give parents a much-needed break. The problems, however, are numerous. We all know that screen time makes our kids susceptible to online predators and can increase tweens’ and teens’ chances of being depressed or anxious, but they can also harm their vision. Dr. Steinhauer warns parents to monitor their kids technology time to avoid harming their eyes—an increasing and serious issue.

Whenever possible, do what our parents did, and kick your kids out of the house and into the fresh air. Not only will it wear them out so they go to bed at a decent hour—so you can get your wine and Netflix on—but the great outdoors allows for adventure that promotes learning how to read and write.

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