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Making the Case for Outdoor Play

Posted by on in What If?
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Jumping in leaves

Last year I was doing site visits, having been hired to observe PreK to second-grade classrooms and offer suggestions for more active learning. On two different occasions I walked into a room just as the class was scheduled to go outside to recess. But the teachers didn’t feel like going outside – so the kids wandered aimlessly about the classroom throughout the 20-minute period allotted to recess.

The teachers apparently considered this “indoor recess” acceptable, but I did not – for many, many reasons.

From a physical perspective, the outdoors is the very best place for children to practice and master emerging motor skills. It is in the outdoors that children can fully and freely experience such skills as running, leaping, and jumping. It is also the most appropriate area for the practice of ball-handling skills, like throwing, catching, and striking. And children can perform other such manipulative skills as pushing a swing, pulling a wagon, and lifting and carrying movable objects. Heaven knows they have too few opportunities for exercising the upper torso these days! And because development occurs from large to small body parts, children who’ve had such experiences are much better prepared for such fine-motor skills as handwriting.

Additionally, it is in the outdoors that children are likely to burn the most calories, which helps fight obesity, a heart disease risk factor that is plaguing children. With studies showing that as many as half of American children are not getting enough exercise -- and that risk factors like hypertension and arteriosclerosis are showing up at age 5! -- parents and teachers need to give serious consideration to ways in which to prevent such health problems.

Cognitive and social/emotional development are also impacted by time spent outdoors. Outside, children are more likely to invent games. As they do, they're able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making, and organizational skills. Inventing rules for games (as kids like to do) promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary. Although the children are only playing to have fun, they're learning

communication skills and vocabulary (as they invent, modify, and enforce rules).

number relationships (as they keep score and count).

social customs (as they learn to play together and cooperate).

And we can't underestimate the value of the aesthetic development promoted by being outside. Aesthetic awareness refers to a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around us. Because the natural world is filled with beautiful sights, sounds, and textures, it's the perfect resource for the development of aesthetics in young children.

Moreover, the little ones learn much through their senses. Outside there are many different and wonderful things for them to see (animals, birds, and green leafy plants), to hear (the wind rustling through the leaves, a robin's song), to smell (fragrant flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow or a raindrop on the tongue). Children who spend a lot of time acquiring their experiences through television and computers are using only two senses (hearing and sight), which can seriously affect their perceptual abilities.

To further make the case for outdoor play, I invited Angela Hanscom and Debra Pierce to join me on Studentcentricity. Among the additional, lesser-known benefits they cited were improved vision and increased attention span. Following the discussion, Deb wrote:

I think Early Childhood professionals have an obligation to emphasize outdoor play, not only with the children they teach, but also with their families. As the lure of technology and other sedentary activities, as well as the push for meeting academic standards, continue to gain ground in our culture, we are seeing fewer and fewer opportunities for just getting outside. What is interesting…when teachers feel “it’s just easier to stay in,” they are actually going to make their day harder. The children will be less focused, less able to engage in the planned activities, and will, naturally, find ways to burn off that pent-up energy that are not acceptable indoors. Physical, unstructured movement is critical to development across all domains. It’s not just a “treat” during the day, but part of the main course.

And Angela offered assurance that “getting children to play independently outdoors does not have to be complicated,” adding

If we take some time to set up the environment with inspiring loose parts (objects children can move around) such as planks, large sticks, old curtains, kitchenware, and baskets — children will often take the lead in their learning. And play experiences will reach a new level of creativity.

When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories are of outdoor places and activities. Just the sight of a weeping willow tree or the taste of a Concord grape brings my childhood rushing back! So I would ask you to think back to your own childhood. Perhaps your memories include a favorite climbing tree or a secret hiding place, learning to turn cartwheels with a friend, or playing tag with the family dog. Maybe there was the smell of lilacs, the feel of the sun on the first day warm enough to go without a jacket, or the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a blanket spread on the grass.

It would be a shame for today’s children to miss out on such experiences. But they don’t have to. We can make sure that while they’re in our care they have the opportunity to spend time outside! And because children usually share the values of the important adults in their lives, there is an added bonus: When we show an appreciation for the great outdoors, the children in our lives will follow our lead.

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Friday, 28 October 2016