Outdoor Play...it's important!

I was going to tell you all about the play in our brand new sand today; but I am saving that for tomorrow. Why? Because I was appalled when I read this today.

First, I was amazed that any teacher wouldn't allow their classroom outside to avoid basic behavior issues that are easily curbed with some simple redirection (and buying of supplies like balls, shovels, and buckets). Then I was floored when I read how short people were talking about their outside time: 15-30 minutes! So, now I am discussing appropriate outdoor time and curriculum.

First, the fact: It takes a child about 20 minutes to find an activity in which to become fully engaged. Yes, some children reach this moment long before that 20 minutes, others may take a bit longer, but 20 is a good strong average. Watch a child wander the yard; just observe.

Maybe he goes running to the tricycle first, spends 1 minute riding around then is quickly sidetracked, jumping off the bike (leaving it in the middle of the path) where he runs to the monkey bars. Here he spends 6 minutes pulling himself up, hanging upside down, and just hanging around. He quickly notices that there are children "baking" ice cream in the play house and goes to join them; he stays there for another 5 minutes where he slowly moves over to the play "car" where he drives to the store for another 3 minutes delivering ice cream. This is when he notices that there is a rope tied to the top of the slide and he can climb up the slide pulling on this rope. This is his "task" for the day: Learning how to climb the slide using this rope, taking turns with others who are engaged here as well, and figuring out the best ways to accomplish this task.

What is he learning? Conflict resolution and teamwork; he needs to solve conflicts with others as they take turns and, most likely, these children will work together and help each other out in getting to the top. Gross motor skills; he will use different muscles in pulling up the slide with his arms and feet than just climbing normally. Self confidence; I can do it! What else can I do?

It took him 15 minutes to find this task, and he stays at this activity for 40 minutes mastering all these skills. Other children have taken different roads to their final tasks, but in the end typically settle on one or two that accomplish other skills: social, gross motor, dramatic play, math, reading, science, and so much more! All this because they are given the time to do so.

If we only allowed them 30 minutes to go outside what would they accomplish? Maybe 15 minutes into the time they would settle on an activity, that leaves 15 minutes more. After another 5, the teacher calls out "5 more minutes to clean-up". This causes the thought "I have to hurry and play before I can't play anymore" and that interrupts a little more than necessary as well. Then of course comes the 5 minute clean up. So what value does the child get from this short amount of play?

The question you need to ask is this: What do I want the children to get out of their play?

Once you answer this question, you will allow for long blocks of uninterrupted play (both inside and out); however, today we are talking about outside. There are some things that are out there that you have no control over them using or not (monkey bars and slide for example); and you want them to use these things. The question is how can you get them to learn and enhance their play. This is answered by what tools you provide.

Remember that rope on the slide? I added that because children were constantly climbing the slide and we had been given a bunch of jump ropes as a donation. The jump ropes were being used to tie each other up; so let's find a better use for them. What happens when we dig a hole and fill it with water? Put up an obstacle course for bikes? Hopscotch? Sidewalk chalk?

What we, as adults, choose to add to the environment, will enhance and change the play of the children. We must observe and make decisions ahead of time to do just this. Bug boxes, pendulums, hula hoops, etc... The outdoor environment should have everything you have inside in addition to the gross motor items. And it should be a well thought out and planned environment, just like the indoor environment.

Do we have problems with appropriate shoes? YES!!! When they come in we tell the parents, "These shoes are not very good for active play and their feet may get injured. We can't stop them from playing so it would be best if you could bring in a more suitable pair." At this point, if they are completely adamant that they can't go get some sneakers we find some socks to put on, at least they are a little protected. We used to have a policy that the children couldn't stay without appropriate attire; however we just changed the parent handbook and accidentally left it out and haven't amended it yet.

Do they throw wood chips? YES!!! We redirect them and help them find a more appropriate activity: throwing balls, climbing slides, filling buckets with wood chips, etc...

15-30 minutes is just not enough time. Yes, we have the advantage of sunny weather year round (San Diego!!!); but on a rainy day we take a rain walk. Years ago we asked for parents to donate rain boots to the center and rain jackets. We have enough for one full class. I can't imagine not taking the children out to play in the snow; especially if they had the appropriate attire. I'm not saying it would be easy; but I think it would be totally worth the fun!

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