Outdoor play is more than children “running off excess energy”. Outdoor play contributes more to children’s overall development than physical fitness and cognitive development. As identified by Kellert (n.d), children’s interactions with the natural world contribute to their development in the following ways:
- Emotional capacity
- Moral and spiritual perspectives
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Formation of self-confidence and self-esteem
Kellert (2002) and Acar (2009) identified that children need to experience nature in direct, indirect and representational or symbolic ways. Kellert’s perspectives suggest that parents and early learning teachers benefit from thinking beyond the notion that children’s connection to nature is primarily through an organized visit to the park or play in the forest. Children require outdoor play spaces that support them in being free to be spontaneous and connect with their environment in the context of their culture and everyday life. The development of children’s personalities and characters is directly related to the levels of experiences and learning opportunities that they are exposed to. As outlined below, Kellert suggested that we think of children’s outdoor experiences from a direct, indirect and symbolic perspective. Each of these types of experiences has a relationship to learning.
Think about how each type of experience contributes to children’s modes of learning. For example, the more direct connections children have with nature, the more they engage in thinking, observing, problem solving and wondering about ‘what will happen if’ questions. The physical contact with nature provides children with an emotional response. Think about children when they see the first snowfall or when they splash in the puddle. Conversely, think about the emotional response when children are outdoors when they are not connected to the environment. How might those emotions be different from a child that thrives on being outdoors? When children have limited contact with the outdoors, they may not develop the same sense of appreciation for the outdoors as those that are exposed to the outdoors in all of the seasons. Children that do not have physical contact with nature are less likely to develop important learning about the environment and their values about environmental stewardship are less likely to be well developed.
Read the case study below and then answer the questions that follow in the comments box.
One of the most significant examples that I reflected on that illustrates the direct, indirect and symbolic experiences applies to a young school-aged child that was new to Canada. We had been discussing snow over several days because there was a large snow storm predicted. Although the child knew there was snow in winter, he had never experienced it. As the snow fell, he engaged in many exploratory experiences, from sticking his tongue out to have the snowflakes fall on his tongue, to observing children making snowballs and then making one himself and putting that snowball in his pocket. In the classroom, he became upset when he realized that his snowball was melting in his pocket. He did not have the experience of touching, feeling or understanding the composites of snow, nor its relationship to temperature.
Could a child gain such information without hands-on experience? What types of knowledge about snow might the child lack without the actual experience?
Outdoor play lays the foundation for children’s learning and the process which they use for learning. Outdoor play environments that are designed to be experiential and that do not require adult intervention increase opportunities for children to experience:
Further, outdoor play environments that are thoughtfully planned for children and with children, provide children with opportunities to:
Kellett (n.d.) determined that the design of outdoor play needs to include a chance for children to experience a sense of wonder, joy, exuberance, awe, even fear and trepidation, all and more, the raw stuff of normal and healthy development. We also need to realize that contact with nature is not just about direct physical contact in the outdoors and with living systems, but as well the representational and symbolic expression of shape and pattern of the natural world revealed in story, picture, myth, legend, and more (p.3).
In essence, children’s engagement and ability to function in outdoor play is directly influenced by the environmental conditions that are present. Greenman (2005) indicated that “childhood is when human beings should fall in love with the world and all its untidy and sometimes scary complexity, delights and mysteries” (p. 2). When children are in environments with limited play options or limited freedom for them to play, the opportunities for them to meander, experience a sense of journey and the exploration “along the way” are reduced, along with their play and discovery options.
When you look at this play space, what images come to mind? Would you want to spend two hours a day there? Why or why not? What do you envision you would see children doing in this space? What might you change? Why?