Unlocking the hidden power of Play

by Lucy Carver

In today’s increasingly digital world, where screens dominate our daily lives, the simple act of playing outside holds more significance than ever for children. Outdoor play isn’t just about fun and games—it’s a crucial aspect of childhood development that nurtures physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. At Whenua Iti Outdoors, we see this benefit every day in our work with children and youth from all walks of life.

child running with a smile on her face

Physical Health and Wellbeing

First and foremost, outdoor play encourages physical activity. Whether it’s running, jumping, climbing trees, mountain biking or coasteering, being outside provides ample opportunity for children to move their bodies. Physical activity helps develop motor skills, strength and coordination, laying the foundation for an active and healthy lifestyle from an early age.

Moreover, exposure to natural light and fresh air is beneficial for overall health. Sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, essential for bone health and immune function. Being outdoors also exposes children to a variety of sensory experiences — feeling the lapping of waves on their feet, hearing the tui chorus, or watching eels slide about. Such experiences contribute to sensory development.

Cognitive Development

Outdoor play stimulates imagination and creativity. Unlike indoor environments that are often structured, the outdoors offers limitless possibilities for exploration and discovery. Whether it’s inventing games, building fairy homes, or investigating insects, children’s imaginations thrive in unstructured outdoor settings. These experiences foster problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and innovation—skills that support their success in school and beyond.

Nature itself provides a rich learning environment. Children learn about the world around them through direct experiences with plants, animals, and natural phenomena. This hands-on learning fosters curiosity and a deeper understanding of seasons, biodiversity and the interrelationships between living things.

a group of children and an outdoor instructor smiling on the rocks whilst coasteering

Social and Emotional Development

Without digital distractions, shared experiences in the outdoors form strong bonds and lasting friendships. When children play together outside, they learn valuable social skills such as cooperation, conflict resolution and how to communicate effectively – all essential for building positive relationships with peers.

Additionally, outdoor play offers children opportunities for independence and risk-taking in safe and supportive environments. Climbing a tree, navigating uneven terrain, or crossing a stream all involve assessing risks and making decisions. Overcoming a range of challenges boosts confidence and resilience, teaching children they can adapt to, and embrace, change.

two children crouching on the ground, absorbed in something small on the forest floor

Connection with Nature

Lastly, outdoor play helps foster a connection with te taiao (nature) and instills a sense of environmental stewardship from a young age. Children who spend time outdoors are more likely to develop a love for the natural world and understand the importance of taking care of it. This connection with nature can inspire a lifelong appreciation for the environment and motivate children to engage in conservation and kaitiaki practices.


In conclusion, outdoor play is not just a pastime – it’s a fundamental part of healthy child development. It enhances physical health, stimulates cognitive development, nurtures social skills, and fosters a deeper connection with the natural world. As parents, educators, and caregivers, we can play a pivotal role in providing opportunities for children to explore, play, and learn outdoors. By prioritising outdoor play, we empower children to thrive, both now and in the future.

So, put down the devices, step outside, and embrace the world that is waiting for you!

a line of children jumping on the beach with their hands in the air and smiles on their faces

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