One of my very first memories as a child is walking to the corner store with my mom when I was probably around 3. This was something we did at least once a week to get odds and ends like milk or a loaf of bread. The store was literally two blocks from our house and would’ve taken us less than a minute to drive there, but we chose to walk.
On those walks, I made a game out of seeing how far I could kick a pebble down the street before it went off into the gutter. On those walks, I practiced my balance as I tiptoed along the low, stone wall that ran along the alley. On those walks, my mom and I would talk about the animals we saw in the small fish pond in Mrs. Marigi’s backyard as we passed by her fence. On those walks, time fell away and the world around me became my playground.
As a child, I recognized that being outside made me feel happy. Riding my bike as fast as I could in the summer sun, jumping in piles of freshly raked autumn leaves, sledding down the biggest hill in the neighborhood in winter, and practicing my best umbrella twirl as the spring rain fell are memories I cherish. Every season of the year holds beauty and joy to me because of the outdoor play-based experiences I had year round as a child.
Getting outside every day is critical for children. It enhances their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development all at once. It keeps them healthier by giving them regular doses of fresh air (which helps stave off respiratory illnesses) and sunshine (which gives children the Vitamin D necessary for building strong bones and teeth). Time spent outdoors also gives children necessary exposure to germs, which in turn boosts their immune systems.
So, as an early childhood professional, here are some ways you can facilitate daily outdoor play in your program:
- Build outside time into your daily schedule. If you plan time for it, you’re more likely to follow through with it. Spend time outside each day, but pay attention to the weather, and use common sense when making decisions about going outside on any given day. If you typically have 30 minutes scheduled for outside time, but there’s a heat advisory, thunder and lightning, high winds, or extreme cold, you might want to rethink your outside plan that day.
- Plan activities for outdoor time on your lesson/activity plan. Make outside time learning time. Take materials from the classroom outside (books, trucks, dolls, blocks, etc.) and see what happens. Move circle time outside under a tree. Have a snack on a picnic blanket.
- Be aware that outside time doesn’t have to mean “playground” time. Many early childhood programs have the luxury of having a designated outdoor playspace, but some do not. Outdoor time comes in many forms – taking a walk, finding shapes in the clouds, catching snowflakes on your tongue… the possibilities are endless!
- Keep individual children’s’ needs and comfort in mind, and act accordingly. Make considerations for children with plant or seasonal allergies. Ensure children are wearing sunscreen. Make sure all children have access to clean drinking water. As you venture outside, keep a close eye on each child’s physical appearance and take cues from them about when it’s time to go in. If you’ve got 30 minutes of outdoor time scheduled, but children appear flushed and are sweating excessively after only 5 minutes, it’s time to take them inside.
- Communicate with families about the benefits of daily outdoor play, and dressing children appropriately for the weather each day. Remind them as the weather changes to adjust their children’s clothing accordingly. As someone once told me, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”
- Keep spare weather appropriate clothes on hand at school for children. This can be in the form of extra clothes a child keeps in his/her cubby, or even a stash of extra gloves, hats, mittens, jackets, etc. that the teacher keeps in the classroom. If everyone’s dressed comfortably, there’s NO EXCUSE not to go outside!
The Great Outdoors is a place where children learn skills and concepts that will last them the rest of their lives. It is a place of wonder, curiosity, critical thinking and problem-solving. Be the person who provides the setting for those things to happen. Get children outside. Every. Single. Day!