Running Around Outside Can Help Improve Executive Functions

Psychologists have long recognized that play is a child’s most basic tool for learning. While it’s easy to see how the creative play of working on an art project and the unstructured play of building a fort could improve executive functions, the connection between those skills and active, nature-based play may be less obvious. Active play, defined as play that has physical movement as a core component, includes organized sports, a walk in the woods, playing tag, or body surfing in the ocean, and can improve skills like organization, planning and focus. Active play’s positive impact on executive functioning skills has to do in part with the fact that it boosts a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Numerous studies indicate that active children are more likely to be energetic, physically-healthy adults, and it has long been known that physical activity in adults leads to better stress management, learning, and attention span.

Active play’s ability to improve executive functions goes far beyond traditional sports and exercise. Participants in active play use skills like self-awareness, self-control, and flexibility when they work with others to establish the parameters of games like tag, manhunt, and hide-and-seek. Going for a hike, exploring the forest around one’s house, or walking the beach provides an opportunity not only for learning about nature but also for planning things such as looking for animals or picking up shells and rocks, focusing on the search, and organizing what is found. Active, nature-based play can also exercise focus and attention by increasing awareness of surroundings, finding trails, and observing the traces of animals.

Here are a few suggestions to make active, nature-based play into an opportunity to improve executive functioning skills for children:

Work play into conversation. Ask simple questions like how rules for a certain game were determined or why they chose to participate in a specific activity. Were there challenges? Areas in which they excelled?

Look out for their observation skills. Before going on a hike in the woods or swimming at the beach, set a few goals for spotting some fish or looking for animal tracks. This will help them focus and improve self-awareness.

Make sure they have the gear. Being prepared for active, nature-based play makes it easy for children. Have hiking shoes, water shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, water bottles, backpacks, boxes and jars for collection, and other supplies accessible at all times.

Want to read more about play and executive functions? Check out how to improve thinking skills with traditional play and toys.

Feature image: Flickr user Kevin Krejci

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