Preschools without walls: why children need outdoor play

Too much screen-time and inactivity is depriving young people of vital lifeskills

 

Every generation winces when the previous one recalls how much better life was in their day. But one thing everyone remembers is playing outside as a child.

If current trends are anything to go by, however, outdoor play could soon be a thing of the past as modern children spend more and more time glued to TV and computer screens or playing indoors because their parents are worried for their safety.

This not only adds to our growing problem of obesity but also limits the developmental scope for children who, according to experts, need to spend time connecting with the outside world every day.

In fact, the issue is deemed so important that there are several major conferences taking place this month to discuss the importance of outside play and ways to help Irish children get as much out of their natural environment as possible.

One of the gatherings involves educators, carers, occupational therapists and even landscapers and builders to highlight the significance of providing spacious, attractive play areas for children in pre-school facilities.

Daniel English of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) says taking steps to ensure our children benefit from the great outdoors is vital.

“Historically, outdoor spaces in pre-school facilities have been the last thing to be considered,” he says. “Hence, many pre-schools are left with inadequate or non-existent outdoor play spaces.

“So we need it to become instinctive among professionals to immediately consider the provision of a decent outdoor play area when constructing, designing or managing a pre-school.”

Being outdoors for at least three hours per day is considered essential for growing children, according to many experts.

“The benefits of outdoor play are multi-faceted and span the entire gambit of a child’s development; physical, mental, sensory and social,” he says.

“Through play, children make sense of their world – infants and toddlers investigate and learn during this sensory motor stage of development.

“This means they are learning through their senses and through movement. Outdoors, children’s senses are naturally stimulated through the ever-changing sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch of the world.

“As their bodies and minds grow and develop, outdoors provides endless opportunities for new experiences which are unavailable inside.”

Lack of physical activity is inextricably linked to obesity among young children.

The Growing up in Ireland Study found that 25 per cent of three-year-olds were overweight. Too much screen time is likely to be a contributing factor.

“Inevitably, the more time children spend looking at screens the less time there is to engage in more traditional, outdoor forms of play,” says English.

“And it’s now a tempting option to hand a child a tablet or mobile phone rather than to bring them outside – the instant engagement screens provide for children is to the detriment of outdoor play.

“The trend is also reflected in the research from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study. It found that only 58 per cent of five-year-olds spent less than two hours in front of a screen on a weekday.

“So while television has been around for decades, tablets and smart phones have only become ubiquitous in recent years so unsurprisingly, they’ve been eating into the time children would have historically spent outdoors.”

To combat this dependency on technology, many outdoor or forest pre-schools are opening around the country, offering children the chance to spend most of their classes outside.

The Nature Kindergarten, Kilruddery, Co Wicklow, is one of them. It is set entirely outdoors and even in wet or cold weather, the children are wrapped up and continue to play, explore and crucially, develop outside.

Sarah Quinn, who has been working with Park Academy Childcare, which runs Nature Kindergarten, says society prohibits children from learning and exploring in ways which are crucial to their development and this is why it is important to encourage more outdoor play, regardless of the weather forecast.

“The children are outside all year – hail, rain or snow,” she says. “We have a cosy log cabin with a fire burner where they eat their meals on the colder days.

“But that’s it, all other times they are outside and they don’t mind this as the correct clothing is so important.

“Also we have very little illness because there is a good bacterium found in the soil which helps boost their immune system and because they are in the fresh air all the time, what little sickness we do get doesn’t spread.”

Being able to “risk-assess” is another vital skill which Sarah and her colleagues say will help children not just to be “school-ready but life-ready”.

“Our children develop skills such as confidence, self-esteem, a love of learning and a ‘can do’ approach to life,” she says.

“They build up resilience through falling over or not achieving their goal right then and there. So in turn they learn perseverance.

“We don’t lift them onto a tree just because they can’t do it themselves. If they keep trying (which might take a couple of months), they will eventually achieve their goal and this is extremely empowering – achieving something themselves through hard work and perseverance is an essential life skill.”

“Nowadays children are so protected from harm that they rarely have to look at a situation and determine if it is safe and if not, decide how they can make it safe or should it be avoided – because all these decisions are made by an adult. But they should be able to self-risk assess for their own safety both now and in the future.”

For those who aren’t so fortunate to have open countryside on their doorstop, there is the option of visiting woodlands or parks on a regular basis.

That is the idea behind the forest school movement, which promotes long-term process of regular sessions, rather than one-off visits. They are run by qualified practitioners and, similarly, seek to promote a healthy relationship between children and the natural world.

The recently-formed Irish Forest School Association is due to hold its inaugural annual conference later this month where it will discuss ways of involving more young people in outdoor life and giving them an opportunity to take risks.

Daniel English agrees and says children need to learn how to deal with different situations in life.

“There can be a tendency to be risk-adverse when planning outdoors play,” he says.

“The litigious nature of our society can sometimes deter early years’ professionals from venturing outdoors with children. This has also led to the ‘rubberisation’ of outdoor play spaces; with everything covered in uninspiring plastic and foam. However, ECI is trying to foster a culture of letting children explore their outdoor environment; playing with natural materials and getting down and dirty.

“We need to foster their natural sense of excitement and wonder. To discover new things and learn all that’s great about the natural world. We need to be able to provide freedom and rich experiences in a framework of safety and develop a mind-set which enables children to ‘give it a go’ from a physical, emotional and sensory perspective.

“For this to happen, outdoor play must be at the heart of a child’s day – and not in a sterile place consisting of foam mats or rubber floorings but one which feeds a child’s natural curiosity, fascination, wonder and awe.”

Toddling, balancing, falling: the benefits of outdoor play

Balancing, falling and getting back up across different types of surfaces builds children’s motor skills.

Playing outdoors with natural materials like sand, clay, water and wood offers stimulating sensorial play that engages children’s imagination and supports their concentration and problem solving skills.

Young children need lots of practice to develop and synchronise their brain structures and nervous systems which co-ordinate their body movements.

In their first few years of life, babies’ balance and senses are developing so they need lots of sensory experiences to develop strong, healthy minds and bodies.

From a physical perspective, to develop co-ordination and strength, children need action in which their muscles encounter resistance such as pushing, pulling, stretching, carrying, digging and raking.

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