So…Outdoor Play at Child Care Centers Is Optional? Huh?

swing set

On my way to work, I pass no fewer than 6 child care centers. As my life revolves around Early Childhood and young children, I am always interested in seeing what’s happening in programs in the community. It had been puzzling to me, no matter the weather or time of day, how few children I ever saw playing outside. In the winter, when it was approaching 40 degrees, after a fresh snow- no children. In the fall, it was sunny and windy and leaves were everywhere- nobody. In the spring, it had just rained, the sun was out, but all I saw were abandoned play areas.

It first, it was a curiosity, but as the seasons changed and the pattern persisted, I was concerned why there was this lack of outdoor, physical activity in child care.

I decided to do some unofficial investigating and started asking child care staff if they had some answers. Boy, did I get an earful!

The staffers very often cited children’s clothing as the problem. They said parents send their children in clothes not meant to get dirty or in shoes not safe for playground surfaces or equipment. It was also reported that parents, in their hurry to get out the door in the morning, forget jackets or hats or boots. A couple care providers even expressed their belief that some parents did these things on purpose, so their children would have to stay indoors.

It didn’t surprise me to hear blame put on parents and we all know that what they said was true. But, what were the OTHER reasons? Well, a couple teachers said the playground environment was the problem. The chunks of mulch under the equipment were dangerous and sometimes the children used them as weapons. And, when it rained, the grass was slick and the slides might be wet. Oh, and if it snowed, all of the equipment was off limits and then the children had nothing to do out there.

Deep, audible exhale.

Clearly, I’d heard enough, because I felt my face becoming flushed. But, I knew there was more. I wanted to dig deeper into this problem and unearth the ugly underbelly. I didn’t have to prod much to make it happen. Some of these caregivers were more than willing to give up their reasons. It only took one in the group to get it going.

no im not

“You know, some days I just don’t feel like getting the kids into all that gear for a few minutes outside.”

“Yeah. And then we get back in and most of them need dry clothes and that’s a big hassle.

“The kids can never just find something to do outside and play nice. I have to constantly step in and break up conflicts.”

“To tell the truth, if the weather isn’t nice, I’m not going out there. I’m not going to stand out in the freezing cold or the baking heat.”

Every single one of these excuses was a staff or management problem. Period.

Let’s explore how these excuses can be eliminated.

During orientation, child care administrators will emphasize the importance of outdoor play to the prospective families. They will point out the paragraph(s) in the Parent Handbook that explain the policies for going outside and the responsibility of the families to ensure their child is dressed appropriately for the weather and for play. It might be suggested that an extra set of outerwear (and play clothes) be kept at the center.

The safety of the children at a child care program is paramount. A quick safety check of the outdoor play area should be part of the daily routine. If there are pieces of landscaping material that are unsafe for children, they should be removed, not avoided. Equipment should be in good repair and never a source of worry.

not watching

Some of the complaints about children acting inappropriately outdoors could probably be alleviated with proper supervision and interaction. If we have teachers standing together (or worse yet, sitting on chairs or benches) away from the action, things are bound to happen. These can range from scuffles over toys to serious accidents.

The outdoors should be considered an extension of the classroom, with teachers closely supervising and guiding the children’s play. There should never be a day when children “have nothing to do” outside. Even if a program has minimal play equipment, the teacher can bring materials and activities outdoors that will engage the children. Yes, this takes planning and preparation, but bringing the children outdoors was never meant to be teacher break-time. If this is what it has become, the administrator will need to get involved.

teacher interacting

How is it teachers can arbitrarily decide (based on their own comfort, energy level, and motivation) whether or not they will take children outdoors? Is the administrator so distracted, preoccupied, or out of touch that she doesn’t notice that some (or all) of the teachers aren’t leaving their classrooms?

OK. So, having unloaded enough on child care staff, I can’t really hold parents blameless in this issue either. Most parents expect that their children are provided with ample mental and physical stimulation while in child care. But, should they just assume this is the case? It is always beneficial for them to drop by occasionally to make sure their expectations are being met and if not, to voice their concerns to initiate change.

Providing children with opportunities for healthy, outdoor physical activity in child care should not be optional, but rather, a regular, expected, and joyful part of every single day.

happy on a swing


Debra, I’m a director/owner of a preschool/child care center in TN. We are outside as much as the available hours will allow. We abide by the extreme heat and extreme cold regs, but we do not let lack of clothing determine outside time, we have extra jackets on hand. We don’t allow the staff to determine outside time, it is on their schedules at least twice each day, they can only stay in if a director tells them it is not appropriate to go out. So in essence, it is up to the admin staff to ensure the teaching staff are doing what is best for the children. Our staff know we go outside, if that’s not for them, then don’t take the job. I too drive by many centers and am amazed how little the playgrounds are used. I will drive by and think it’s 10:30 and a beautiful day where are the children?! I at least know “my” kids are on the playground, because our staff know this is not an option. It is part of the curriculum and their job. Thank you for this article. I wish more school/centers would place value on outside time!

This is so true! Kids coming to school without extra set of clothes in backpack, or no backpack. Wrong shoes. We are outside learning much of the day. It’s not about recess, it’s about getting muddy, learning to skate and ride various bikes, climbing, sliding, finding bugs. Learning to resolve problems, taking turns. Talk about DAP. Great post.

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