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Sensorial Montessori and the Benefits of Outdoor Play

[Ad] Gifts for outdoorsy kids are, without fail, on my children’s birthday and Christmas lists every year – I ensure it! When Wicked Uncle approached me about a collaboration, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to talk about sensorial Montessori and the benefits of outdoor play, and showcase some examples of their great gifts for little adventurers.

We all know it’s beneficial for children to spend time outside and in nature, yet they can often be reluctant. In my experience this tends to be until they venture out – at which point there’s nothing better!

Benefits of playing outside - sensorial Montessori | Image shows a mother playing outside in a field of yellow flowers, with her her two young children.

Here’s a recap of why encouraging outdoor play is key to child development…

What is Sensorial Montessori?

If you’ve not heard of sensorial Montessori before, it’s a philosophy developed by Dr Maria Montessori in the early 1900’s and focuses on the importance of sensory play. The concept is based around the idea that sensory activities encourage children to isolate, tune into, and refine their senses. This in turn provides them with practical cause and effect learning opportunities, allowing them to organically discover logic, and everything that naturally follows on from there.

At its most basic level, time spent outside is a fundamental part of sensorial Montessori because it’s a natural playground for kids. Of course it doesn’t hurt to provide some carefully selected options to entice our little explorers outdoors, and (although not strictly Montessori), Wicked Uncle has some brilliant toys to complement the philosophy.

Benefits of Outdoor Play

There are so many reasons it’s important for kids to get outdoors. As somebody who takes a keen interest in the environment, one of the really important ones for me is the fact that children who spend time outside are more likely to protect nature as adults. 

But it goes way beyond that, with physical, social, intellectual, and mental health benefits.

Physical Benefits

Outdoor play allows children to improve motor skills and overall health. Plus kids who are active in childhood tend to carry that lifestyle forward, creating a disposition for seeking out fresh air and exercise. Motivating children to experiment with outside fun may help to nurture a healthy outlook when it comes to maintaining an active lifestyle in adulthood – yet childhood activity can actually have a positive lifelong impact on health, even in sedentary grownups.

1. Improved motor skills

Kids who spend time playing outside tend to have more opportunities to practice are refine their motor skills. This allows them to fine tune their balance, vestibular system, proprioception, coordination, and agility.

Adequate time spent learning and practicing running, jumping, balancing, climbing and more will not only help a child to improve their skills, they’ll also foster a growth mindset (continued effort equals improved proficiency) and greater self-confidence.

With my girls still being young, some of our favourite toys for inspiring outdoor play are a classic ball or frisbee, and Wicked Uncle has great options for both!

Two boys playing with Wicked Uncle Mega Bounce balls.

2. Lower body mass index

I don’t generally like to talk about children and weight as it’s most often not a healthy conversation to have – we didn’t own scales until they were received as an (unusual!) gift, and they live at the back of the cupboard. I tend to discourage talk around bodies, other than to note health, strength and ability. We teach Pixie and Elfin that everything is healthy in moderation, and they see both myself and their dad enjoying our food and being active.

But, like it or not, a healthy weight is a vital element of overall health, and while BMI can be misleading, that’s more often the case in adulthood when muscle mass is unaccounted for.

Worryingly, childhood weight is a predictor of adult weight, but the good news is that this can be easily combatted by encouraging outdoor play.

3. Increased muscle strength

Another benefit of playing outside, and especially in a park or anywhere children can climb and hang, is muscle strength. One concern is that children are going to school unable to properly grasp a pencil, which has been blamed on too much tech and too little active play.

4. Improved overall health

Spending time outdoors is fundamentally healthy. In addition to expending energy, developing motor skills, maintaining a healthy weight, and increasing strength, being outside increases sun exposure which is vital for vitamin D production. Sunlight also increases the release of serotonin and boosts mood – as does physical exertion!

Social and Emotional Benefits

In addition to all the physical benefits of outdoor play, children also experience a myriad of social and emotional advantages too.

1. Improved communication skills and peer relationships

Playgrounds are often the first place young children get to learn and practice their communications and social skills. It’s also one of the earliest opportunities they’ll have to meet people who are different to them. 

Having the opportunity to interact with peers is a vital part of social development for children, and they need to do it without our interference. On the occasions that this process is not perfectly successful, they’ll learn a little more about empathy and cooperation – both critical to cultivating positive social skills. 

Being in public play areas is ideal for facilitating the space children require to work out their differences independently, and to collaborate with their peers.

2. Develop a sense of independence

As an extension of the last point, showing our children that we trust in their ability to communicate and negotiate with others without our involvement is hugely beneficial to their confidence and will help to nurture autonomy.

3. Appreciation for the environment

I mentioned earlier the value I place on the environment, and it’s imperative for me that I foster this respect in my children too. We’ve recently started litter picking as a weekend family activity and the girls absolutely love it. Spending time in nature is the best way to cultivate a love for it.

Developmental Benefits

1. Stimulate and develop the senses

Sensory play is a vital part of childhood development, and it’s important to provide opportunities for each of the following:

  • Tactile sensory play
Playing with hands and exploring heat, cold, pressure, vibrations, etc.
  • Vestibular sensory play
Hanging, swinging, jumping, rolling all contribute to the development of the vestibular system located in the inner ear.
  • Proprioception sensory play
Jumping, pushing and pulling help to develop spatial awareness.
  • Auditory sensory play
Exploring and differentiating between sounds to help develop hearing.
  • Visual sensory play
For enhanced vision and sight.
  • Olfactory and taste sensory play
Develops senses of taste and smell.

2. Aids with brain development

Collaborative outdoor play also encourages imaginative, explorative, and inventive play, as well as helping to develop reasoning and problem-solving skills. 

All of these things will stand your child in good stead for learning about the world around them, both in terms of physics (learning cause and effect), and also socially.

3. Practical development and application of skills

Developing all of these many new skills is only one part of the jigsaw when it comes to kids. It’s vital that they’re given the space and opportunity to apply them practically. 

When young children go through ‘leaps’ and their sleep suffers for it, it’s often because they’re learning a new skill, and they don’t want to miss a chance to practice them. 

Mental Health Benefits

The mental health benefits of taking my children outside may just be the most important of all, or at least it often feels that way! I know from personal experience the positive power of a walk by the river and the girls adore going to the woods. The sea is my happy place, and one of their favourite haunts is our local RHS garden. 

1. Mindfulness

Immersing ourselves in nature makes us feel better. I can wax lyrical about this anecdotally because it’s absolutely true for me personally – and research supports my claims. 

Not only is the simple act of being in a natural environment restorative because it takes us away from stressors (and screens!), it also promotes mindfulness because, according to a fascinating theory known as the biophilia hypothesis, we are literally programmed to be captivated and soothed by nature.

Image shows two laughing children doing handstands on grass.

2. Improved ability to self-regulate

Self-regulation is a key skill for learning to function appropriately in society. It describes resilience, or a person’s ability to tolerate challenging situations. Crucially, it’s about how we manage and respond to those challenges.

If self-control is about inhibiting strong impulse reactions, then self-regulation is about reducing the intensity and frequency of those strong impulses, by practicing coping strategies, and lessening (regulating) the emotional and physiological impact of a given stressor.

This is no mean feat, it’s something I’m constantly working on with Pixie. She feels things deeply, and I can’t make her feel them less. But there are, thankfully, ways to help – and mindfulness activities and outdoor play are some of the very best.

For some children self-regulation is a greater challenge due to sensory processing issues. This is when any one of the senses becomes easily overwhelmed, and sensory overload makes self-regulations extremely difficult.

Outdoor play can be a really vital element to promoting self-regulation, especially when it means being around other kids. 

Playing alongside others will invariably call for communication, turn-taking, negotiating, following rules, etc. Participation naturally requires that each child constantly processes the situation, in order that they can adapt and collaborate effectively; they must learn to be flexible and dynamic, recognising and assessing their feelings, and responding appropriately.

This is incredibly tricky for young children because alongside developing empathy and learning to share, they must also begin to practice the vital skill of setting appropriate boundaries – something many adults struggle with!

But it’s not only socially that children can benefit in terms of improved self-regulation – all seven senses are involved, and that includes the proprioception and vestibular systems, which means climbing and balancing are also valuable opportunities for practicing and improving self-regulation.

Gifts For Outdoorsy Kids & Little Adventurers!

After all that, I’m sure you’ll agree that getting our little ones (as well as ourselves!) outside as much as possible is one of the best things we can do for their overall wellbeing.

Wicked Uncle has some brilliant gift ideas to encourage outdoor play, including the world’s bounciest ball, a fold up frisbee, and a remote control stunt bike!

What to Get Kids Who Like Nature?

And what about children who already take a keen interest in the environment? Wicked Uncle also sell items including an eco bamboo periscope, a scavenger hunt, a wildlife camera with over 100 images and cool facts, and a greenhouse kit.

A boy playing outside with a bamboo periscope.

Outdoorsy gifts are a great way to motivate kids to play outside, and once they’ve made it over the threshold, they’ll inevitably choose to stay outside.