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The Specs on SPEC: How Outdoor Play Contributes to the Overall Wellness of Children

The term “wellness”

is commonly used in the health community to encompass the integrated spiritual, physical and mental well-being of a person. All these factors work together to contribute to an overall picture of a person’s health. In the world of educational outdoor learning environments, parks, and playgrounds, a similar set of “health markers” is used to determine a space design’s overall ability to create a healthy play environment that positively contributes to the overall wellbeing and development of a child. Creating a space that can positively engage and affect a child’s social, physical, emotional, and cognitive health (or SPEC), is the primary goal in professional outdoor learning design.

MHS has been incorporating the idea of engaging the full spectrum of developmental health into our designs since our inception, but through experience and collaboration with other leading suppliers in this field, we have moved beyond simply creating fun spaces to play and begun to layer in these multiple health and developmental elements that engage children at a much deeper level than they are ever aware. On the surface, it may look like just a greenspace or playground, but in reality, a well-designed outdoor educational space is so much more.

According to pediatricians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

School-aged children need about three hours of outdoor play each day

to achieve the greatest benefit to their overall health.

While this seems like a lot to work into the daily schedule, the reality is that for most children, the opportunity for safe and supervised outdoor play happens during the hours they are at school. We often associate school and other group learning environments with social benefits. While interacting with our peers in the lunchroom or classroom is important, the outdoor learning environment can be equally beneficial to social development.

Learning to wait in line for a favorite playground activity, coordinating and communicating a plan of action to navigate a series of obstacles, and even climbing inside a Fox Den™ Hangout to rest and relax all help improve social awareness. Learning how to engage and interact with peers is an essential part of social development and there’s nowhere on a school campus where this occurs more naturally than on the playground. Learning to share, take turns, listen, and respond to another person’s needs and desires, use your imagination, engage with others, and form friendships are all normal occurrences in the outdoor play experience. Even learning how to deal with conflict and compromise can be best worked out in the outdoor learning space.


“Outdoor play helps children grow socially, helping them to develop healthy ways of forming friendships, responding to physical interaction, and using their imaginations to entertain each other,” says Dr. Katie Lockwood, MD-Pediatrics. “It helps them solve problems, build relationships within their peer group and gain a respect for nature.”


Perhaps the most obvious benefit

of outdoor play and learning environments is the impact on a child’s physical health. According to a recent study by the CDC, almost 20% of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from obesity. This translates to about 14.7 million children and adolescents. Physical activity is one of the best combatants to reducing these statistics. The minimum recommended amount of physical activity for school aged children is 60 minutes a day. For many children, school recess is their best chance of achieving this daily allotment of physical activity.

Beyond just the physical fitness benefits of outdoor play, elements of outdoor play structures can help children understand their own bodies and abilities more fully. Structures like zip lines and climbing nets help teach them about allowable amounts of risk vs. hazard. Children who are given the opportunity to take safe and measured risks on a regular basis are able to better understand how to safely interact with less measured hazards that they may encounter in their environment.

By climbing, jumping, running, and swinging through playground elements, schools can promote health in a controlled and safe environment for physical activity. Jill Moore of Landscape Structures highlighted specific play equipment designed to enhance vestibular senses, or senses relating to the inner ear which help us process motion and balance. As participants engage in different playground activities that invoke spinning, swinging, swaying or rocking motions, they develop their sense of balance and gain understanding about their bodies position in space. When this sensory foundation is not developed, a child might be unable to listen to a teacher because their mind and body are working so hard trying to maintain balance and stay in their seat.

Research compiled by Parenting Science highlights some of the lesser-known physical benefits to outdoor play:

  • Reduced risk of myopia (or nearsightedness)

  • Exposure to bright light improves health and mental performance

  • Sunlight contributes to bone growth, muscle function, and even the onset of puberty

  • Naturally attuned sleep rhythms

  • Better recovery from stress and enhanced concentration.

All of these physical benefits can be contributed to engaging in outdoor play and learning.


Emotional health is the ability to cope with and manage emotions as well as the ability to maintain positive relationships. Outdoor learning experiences contribute to the building of self-confidence and self-esteem by creating the ability to experiment with various emotions or even release and process negative emotions through physical activity.

Outdoor play contributes to more:
  • positive behavior

  • less anger, aggression

  • Reduced anxiety and stress

  • Aid in reducing the effects of depression

Through play, children can learn to overcome fear and doubt, encourage, and be encouraged by their peers, show love or kindness and express emotions, either through specific play elements that create these opportunities or interactions with others. The design of the outdoor structures can play an even larger role in the emotional component with certain colors creating specific emotional responses, structures such as Landscape Structure’s cozy dome which provides space for a child to decompress and feel safe.

According to research by Whirlix Design Inc. and Landscape Structures:

it encourages the skill of self-regulating, allowing the child to have the space alone as needed, then re-enter the play environment when they feel ready.

Providing a variety of sensory play, including spinning, climbing, tactile elements or auditory play, can even help children with autism or sensory processing disorders re-regulate their interior senses and thus reengage with play after an overwhelming emotional experience.

The final component of the whole-health SPEC model is cognitive function.

Cognition is defined as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.”

The ability to think, learn and remember clearly are vital to the educational process and cognitive health is an essential component of overall brain health.

Through outdoor educational spaces, children learn
  • How to solve problems

  • Think critically

  • Engage in learning with curiosity and creativity

It is proven that incorporating outdoor educational experiences improves overall learning outcomes in the school environment. Studies have shown that increasing students outdoor time by as little as 5 minutes can lead to better behavior including less classroom disruptions which lead to better learning outcomes for students and teachers alike. According to a paper published by National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF), students better absorb and retain math, science, language arts, and other skills that incorporate their immediate environment and use all five senses. Outdoor spaces can provide the perfect opportunity for all five senses to come into play to encourage the learning process. Improving or overcoming cognitive and processing disorders is another significant area of concentration in the outdoor learning space. While we’ll dive more into this in our next paper covering the topic of inclusivity, outdoor play can reduce the symptoms of ADHD, autism, and other cognitive and sensory processing disorders by helping the brain work through some of the cognitive processes while simultaneously incorporating physical movement. Again, the incorporation of as many senses as possible into the learning environment serves to improve the absorption and retention of information, thus contributing to not only the overall learning process, but also the overall well-being of the children and adolescents who engage in it.


At MHS, We Truly Believe

that the SPEC benefits of outdoor educational environments are almost limitless and as essential in the educational system design processes as the classrooms themselves. The same NCEF research paper mentioned previously maybe said it best, “Once we accept that education naturally occurs both indoors and out, the term "outdoor learning" will begin to seem as strange as the never used "Indoor learning."

We hope the day is coming soon when the phrase “learning” truly encompasses the complete indoor and outdoor environment.


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