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Outdoor Environments for Children

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Value of Outdoor Play

There are many benefits to a well-planned outdoor space. Outside, children can play vigorously, use loud voices, release excess energy, and engage in large, messy projects. In the outdoors, children can experience climate, openness, messiness, wildlife, and different landscapes such as hills, holes, streams, and mud puddles (Greenman, 1991). They can test and strengthen their physical skills and engage in social, cognitive, and creative pursuits. Research indicates that children who play outdoors demonstrate better visual motor integration, imagination, and verbal and social skills than children who play inside (Yerkes, 1982). There are also health benefits to playing outdoors, including opportunities for exercise, exposure to sunlight necessary for the body to produce Vitamin D, and an environment with less-concentrated disease organisms than are found inside (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, & National Resource Center For Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education, 2002).

The outdoors provides invaluable learning opportunities, promotes health, and encourages lifelong dispositions (Cuppens, Rosenow, & Wike, 2007). However, we need to protect this right to outdoor experiences.

Protecting Children’s Right to Play Outdoors

As Rivken (1995), the author of The Great Outdoors, states, “Children’s access to outdoor play has evaporated like water in sunshine. It has happened so fast, along with everything else in this speed-ridden century that we have not coped with it well. If someone had said to our grandmothers, ‘Bet your great-grandchildren won’t know where to find worms,’ they would not have believed it” (p. 2). There is growing concern about the decrease in children’s time outdoors. For example, between 1981 and 1997, the time children between the ages 6 to 8 decreased by 27% (Hoffert & Sandberg, 2000). In one study, 70% of mothers played outside everyday when they were young, while only 31% of their children do (Clements, 2004). Children today have limited opportunities for free play or exposure to nature due in part to a “culture of fear” (White, 2004). Eighty-two percent of preschool and elementary children’s parents stated the main reason they do not allow children to play outside is concern about crime and safety (Clements, 2004). Parents are concerned about stranger danger, sun exposure, insect-carrying diseases, and pollution (Pyle, 2002; Wilson, 2000). The recent trend in some elementary schools to eliminate recess so that children can spend more time on academic skills has exacerbated the problem. This lack of free time to play outside has resulted in what some call a “childhood of imprisonment” (Stoecklin, 2000).

The trend to spend less time outside is also a concern in other countries. For example, the lack of time children spend outside, rising obesity, sedentary activities, and the amount of time children spend watching or using electronic media is a concern in Norway and several other Scandinavian countries (Fjortoft, 2001). To counteract this, some kindergartens in Scandinavian countries are provided entirely outdoors. Results show that children in these programs are more creative in play, engage in increased play activities, have less illness, and are more physically fit than their peers (Fjortoft, 2001, p. 112).

To gain full advantage from outdoor play, children need an appropriate space. “Space is the backdrop to play, supplying content, context, and meaning. It is bound to communicate a variety of possible messages to children (Titman, 1994): welcome, dismay, excitement, intimidation, warmth, coldness” (Cosco & Moore, 1999).

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