ERIC Identifier: ED448013
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Rivkin, Mary S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Outdoor Experiences for Young Children. ERIC Digest.
Much professional thought and long-standing tradition emphasize the value of
outdoor experiences for young children (e.g. Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Moore
& Wong, 1997; Cobb, 1977/1993, Wilson, 1996a; Rivkin, 1995). Despite the
conventional wisdom, however, many children today spend very little time
outdoors. This Digest considers the rationale for outdoor experience among young
children and the reasons for its decline in popularity. It also presents
arguments for enhancing school and center playspaces and provides guidelines for
developmentally appropriate outdoor design.
THE VALUE OF OUTDOOR EXPERIENCES
Most children appear to
benefit from being outdoors. They like to see what is going on (traffic,
construction, water flowing, clouds moving, animals), go someplace, meet and
greet other people and animals, experience the infinite and diverse sensory
qualities of the world (the smells, the feels, the sounds), and experiment with
the "big behaviors," such as shouting, running, climbing, and jumping (which are
seldom accommodated well indoors). Not only is being outdoors pleasant, its
richness and novelty stimulate brain development and function. Cognition is
rooted in perception (e.g.,Gleitman & Liberman, 1995)-- the outdoors is a
prime source of perceptions.
Young children especially need the broad experiential base provided by being
outdoors. The knowledge they gain there is foundational to literacy and science
learning (Dewey, 1938/1963). Generations of kindergarteners have been taken on
farm visits so they could read, write, draw, converse, and know about pumpkins,
cows, and cornstalks. Furthermore, unlike some childhood pleasures, that of
being outdoors seems lasting--any casual survey of adults will find a high
quotient of happy outdoor memories, some of which have been formative
(Cobb,1977/1994; Chawla, 1994, Sebba, 1991, Wilson, 1996a). Another lasting
benefit is that children can learn to care for the environment, if provided with
numerous positive outdoor experiences under the tutelage of suitable role models
(Carson, 1956/1998; Wilson, 1996b).
Despite the benefits of outdoor
experiences, and in contrast to earlier agrarian, pre-automotive times, children
now spend most of their time inside buildings or vehicles. As most adult
activities are indoors, so now are most children's, perhaps in large part from
the need for supervision. Children five and under seldom experience unsupervised
outdoor play; now, even the 5-10's tend to be supervised.
Adult fears regarding traffic, firearms, kidnapping, injury, ultraviolet
rays, insect-borne diseases, and pollution of various sorts lead them to keep
children indoors. Additionally, especially in many urban areas, few places
remain for children to play. Before cars took over, streets were places that
connected dwellings and shops, providing a common space for activities,
including children's play. Public playgrounds, even though meant for children,
are frequently poorly designed, maintained, or supervised (National Program for
Playground Safety, 2000). School playgrounds are typically limited to
combinations of asphalt, turf, and some large-motor structures.
The attractions of staying inside when not in school--amusement, comfort, and
homework--are strong. For instance, 98% of U.S. homes have television, 42% have
computers (National Science Foundation, 2000), and over 70% have air
conditioning (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996, p. 17). During the school day, the
demands of academic learning increasingly encroaches on outdoor time. Many
schools have eliminated recess above the primary level.
ENHANCING SCHOOL AND CENTER PLAYSPACES
benefits of outdoor experiences and acknowledging that they can strengthen
academic learning, national movements in Europe and Canada, as well as some
local U.S. efforts, have recently focused on improving school grounds (Rivkin,
1997). Titman's (1994) seminal research has helped fuel these efforts because it
indicates that poorly designed and maintained school yards actually lower
children's self-esteem. Thus, as children spend increasing amounts of time in
institutions--year-round schools and child care centers--the urgency to provide
decent play spaces should logically intensify. School ground improvers emphasize
First, the curriculum of the school can be enhanced by a good outdoor
environment. Individual schools and school districts can align their curriculum
and physical environments. Recent national research indicates that when the
outdoor environment is used to integrate a school's curriculum, achievement is
higher (Lieberman, 1999).
Second, environmental degradation such as erosion and run-off can be eased
with planting and storm-water pond projects, which also teach children the value
of stewardship and activism. Young children can participate in such projects,
particularly with older children as partners, creating service-learning
opportunities for both.
Third, habitats for small creatures such as birds and insects restore to
children a chance to acquire firsthand, multi-sensory knowledge of the natural
world, now too often unavailable to them. Butterfly and other gardens are
increasingly popular school yard additions. The National Gardening Association
and the National Wildlife Federation, among others, offer many resources to
support school gardens and habitats.
Fourth, safer school yards are more likely to be used by teachers and
children. Well-designed structures with resilient surfacing under them are
critical to safety (Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1997); other
considerations are supervision and maintenance. Increasingly, too, there is
evidence that richly provisioned school yards reduce aggressive play (Moore
& Wong, 1997; Humphries & Rivkin, 1998). Finally, a good school ground
and the process of improving and maintaining it can be the center of a
community, helping to restore for children the links between school and home.
DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE OUTDOOR ENVIRONMENTS
outdoor play areas begins with the young child's needs and directions of growth.
A developmentally appropriate space is a major element of the curriculum--where
there is sand, there can be exploration of sand. Designs for infants, toddlers,
preschoolers, and primary children differ. The design guide for federal agency
child care centers offers a good overview (U.S. General Services Administration
Public Building Services, 1998), as does Frost (1992) and Greenman (1988). "Play
for All Guidelines" (Moore, Goltsman, & Iacofano, 1992) contains many
suggestions for Universal Design, a developing concept that helps meet the
Americans with Disabilities Act requirement for non-discriminating public
Infants need modulated sensory stimulation and increasing physical
opportunities. This includes interesting things to look at from a horizontal as
well as vertical position, protection from excess wind and sun, pleasant colors
and sounds, places to crawl and things to pull up on as they develop these
skills, and the ability to watch but not be knocked over by older children.
Elements to consider include waving grasses and leaves, mobiles stirred by the
breeze, high vines that attract birds and butterflies, and soft wind chimes.
Porches with translucent roofs, smooth floors for creeping, and vertical
railings (spaced to avoid entrapment) for pulling up on, provide an outdoor
experience without rain or excess sun. Ramps instead of stairs allow for safe
creeping, as well as gravity experiments ("How did that ball get down there?"
"Will it do it again?").
Toddlers require places and spaces for acting out prepositions--over, under,
on top of, inside, outside, behind, in front of, up, and down--because their
physical development is paramount and fuels their cognitive development. In
addition to safe, appropriately sized playground structures, toddlers like low
hills to clamber up and down. A slide imbedded in the hill provides another way
down. A large sand area, arranged to be covered when not in use, is a place for
socializing. Experiencing water is vital--water table, hose, sprinkler. Trees
that change colors or offer pinecones, shade, and possibly fruit are enjoyable
for adults as well as children. Behind a low fence, gardens give color and
fragrance but minimize contact with bees and wasps. Poured rubber walkways
provide even, soft areas for practicing walking and then running, as well as for
push-toys and wheeled toys. As with infants, porches extend the use of the
outdoors and serve as a transitional zone between the classroom and the yard.
Preschoolers continue rapid physical development, and with increasing social
and language skills, require a yard with many opportunities. Running, climbing,
hopping, jumping, sliding, dancing, and spinning require large-motor structures,
trikes, wagons, wheelbarrows, hills, and paths. Sociodramatic and individual
imaginative play is fundamental to preschoolers' development, and such play is
supported by playhouses equipped to become homes, convenience stores, forts, or
restaurants as youngsters' interests require. Outdoor storage holds play props
and art supplies, encouraging teachers to make art available where messes don't
matter much and creation is inspired--"Can you paint the wind?" Sand and water
play are also required for preschoolers' knowledge of the physical world, an
entry point into play with others, and for creative expression. Gardening,
especially in trike-resistant raised beds, teaches preschoolers about growing
and caring for plants. Preschoolers are intrigued by the insects gardens
attract, including butterflies. Outdoor storage for tools and hoses helps here;
children play at gardening, teachers do the gritty maintenance work.
Primary children need much of what preschoolers need but also require places
to sit, read, talk, draw, and do homework. Provision for group activities such
as a basketball hoop, ground graphics such as hundred-squares and hopscotch, and
an amphitheater are desirable. Materials for projects--wood, paint, cardboard,
clay, tools--allow initiative and industry. In some centers, primary children
enjoy being with the younger children, developing skills as mentors and play
leaders. Children also benefit physically from freely playing in wooded areas
(Fjortoft, in press).
A CRITICAL PERIOD FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
Although we evolved
largely in the outdoors, of late children have been increasingly indoors.
Respecting our history, and knowing the benefits of outdoor experiences,
educators may wish to provide young children both richer environments and
extended time in them.
Playspaces for children of all ages need to be more than playgrounds. They
should be "habitats"--places where children can live.
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997 ).
Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs, 2nd ed.
Washington, DC: National Association of the Education of Young Children. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 403 023)
Carson, R. (1998). The sense of wonder. New York: Harper & Row,
Haper/Collins. (Original work published 1956)
Chawla, L. (1994). In the first country of places: Nature, poetry, and
childhood memory. Albany: SUNY Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Cobb, E. (1977/1993). The ecology of imagination in childhood, 2nd ed.
Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 2nd edition.
Dewey, J. (1938/1963). Experience and education. New York: Collier.
Fjortoft, I. (in press). The natural environment as a playground for
children. Early Childhood Education Journal.
Frost, J. (1992). Play and playscapes. New York: Delmar.
Greenman, J.T. (1988). Caring spaces, learning places. Redmond, WA: Exchange
Gleitman, L. & Liberman, M. (1995). An invitation to cognitive science:
Language (vol. 1, 2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Humphries, S., & Rivkin, M. (1998). Creating a great place to learn--and
play. Principal. 77(3), 28-30.
Lieberman, G. (1999). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as
an integrating context for learning. San Diego, CA: State Education and the
Environment Roundtable. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 428 943)
Moore, R., Goltsman, S, & Iacofano, D. (1992). Play for all guidelines:
Planning, design and management of outdoor play settings for all children.
Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.
Moore, R., & Wong, H. (1997). Natural learning: The life history of an
environmental schoolyard. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 432 122)
National Program for Playground Safety. (2000). How safe are America's
playgrounds? A national profile of childcare, school, and park playgrounds.
Cedar Falls, IA: University of Northern Iowa.
National Science Foundation. (2000). Science and engineering indicators 2000.
Washington, DC: Author, Ch. 9. May be downloaded at
Rivkin, M. (1995). The great outdoors: Restoring children's right to play
outside. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young
Children. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 388 414)
Rivkin, M. (1997). The schoolyard habitat movement: What it is and why
children need it. Early Childhood Education Journal, 25(1), 61-66.
Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood. Environment and Behavior,
Titman, W. (1994). Special places, special people: The hidden curriculum of
the school grounds. Goldaming, Surrey, UK: World Wide Fund for Nature/Learning
Through Landscapes. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 430 384)
U.S. Census Bureau. (1996). The American housing survey for the U.S. in 1995.
Washington, DC: Author.
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. (1997). Handbook for public
playground safety. Washington, DC: Author. May be downloaded from
U.S. General Services Administration Public Buildings Service (1998). Child
care center design guide (PBS 3425-13). Washington, DC; Author. May be
downloaded from http://www.gsa.gov.
Wilson, R. (1996a). The Earth--a "vale of soul making." Early Childhood
Education Journal, 22(3), 169-171.
Wilson, R. (1996b). Starting early: Environmental education during the early
childhood years (ERIC Digest). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science,
Mathematics, and Environmental Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service
No. ED 402 147) -----