Mud Pies and Magpies: The Therapeutic Value of Outdoor Play

Category: Play Therapy

By Jennifer Hector, LMFT


glass-97504_960_720Imagine the crunch of leaves underfoot and the heavy scent of rain hanging in the air on a Fall day. Mud puddles sit glistening in the yard. A smooth cool breeze blows through trees as birds twirl in the open space mimicking the wind. Around a large oak tree, two children squat barefoot, giggling and hovering over a mound of freshly sculpted pies. These small feet and fingers smeared in greys and browns prepare for a tea party.


In Angela Hanscom’s book, Balanced and Barefoot, she invites parents to reconsider the value of outdoor free play. This pediatric occupational therapist explains three important reasons to encourage our kids to leave their glowing screens and run out the door.

The first factor to consider in weighing outdoor play’s positive impact is that it builds a more resilient sensory system. Our bodies are wired to engage in the world and process that engagement through our senses. Going outside turns on our senses in subtle, manageable, yet highly interactive ways. Indoor realms offer sensory experience but in an often disintegrated way, amplified, static or one dimensional. Our body-minds thrive and regulate experience when our senses can operate together taking in information that is served in ready bite sized amounts vs. overwhelming, underwhelming and/or chaotic amounts. According to Hanscom, we are a culture deprived of a healthy sensory diet and are in need of a daily infusion of unrestricted outdoor play for a balanced sensory experience.

The second reason Hanscom offers is that the outdoors cultivates limitless inspiration giving kids’ minds the opportunity to relax, project and play out ideas on an uncontained, undefined stage; child-176889_960_720the world is their oyster and is limited only by their imagination. Problem solving occurs in an alert yet calming atmosphere providing an optimal environment for creatively processing experiences and exploring new pathways.

Thirdly, the unexpected and unpredictable outdoors invites kids to test their limits, to access challenges and make decisions. Hanscom believes this experience of pushing limits and challenging oneself provides kids an opportunity to build confidence, to naturally determine the pace at which they are ready to try a challenge, and to learn to be flexible and change course when needed. The alert physical and mental state that nature evokes is ideal for life long learning and resourcing. It is the perfect testing ground for kids to begin to discover their whole potential, body and mind. Understanding where their boundaries begin and end assists them in navigating life’s challenges.

Whether it’s making mud pies after a fresh rain, walking barefoot in the park or up a gravel stream or listening to magpies screech as they fly across a field, our kids have the potential to find their way to a more alert, engaged, and embodied place when they walk out the door onto a life stage that they set and that fosters deep well-being and a life time relationship with the more-than-human world around them.


For more information about Angela Hanscom and the therapeutic power of play see: