Why Plan for Outdoor Environments?
Children need the challenge and freedom inherent in outdoor play. Through rough-and-tumble outdoor play, children have the opportunity to develop feelings of confidence not only in themselves and their bodies, but also in others and in their natural environment. Children with physical disabilities find outdoor play of special value. Here they can strengthen large muscles. Depending on their needs, they can walk up and down hills, climb, and exercise small muscles by digging in the sand or playing in water. As they explore the outdoor environment, all children make discoveries about the properties of their world.
Outdoor play and exploration are an essential part of the science curriculum because young children learn through their senses—hearing, smell, taste, touch, and vision. They also learn science concepts through the motoric manipulation of objects. Active experiences outside the school walls provide the opportunity for sensation, observation, and cooperation.
Sensory experiences. Being out-of-doors offers “so many enticing ways to engage the senses! Foods and flowers are great for smells, but so is fresh earth, decaying leaves, and freshly mown grass or hay. Nothing offers as much variety in terms of shapes and colors as the world of nature. The same is true of textures and temperatures” (Wilson, 1995, p. 6).
Teachers will want to expand water and sand play out-of-doors. As children play with hoses or run through a sprinkler, they explore the properties of water. They can wash doll clothes and hang them in the sun to dry, or hold a car wash and wash all the trikes, wagons, and wheel toys. Adding a trickling water hose and plastic squirt bottles filled with water to the sand area lets children create large structures in the sandbox.
Digging in the dirt and extracting different sizes of pebbles and rocks is another sensory experience that provides information to the child about the nature of the surfaces of the earth, concepts of heavy and light, rough and smooth, and large and small. Learnings are best reinforced when teachers have questions to focus children on their inquiries. For example, when examining rocks, focusing questions might be “How are they alike/different?” “Which ones are smooth?” “Which ones are rough?” At the Center for Young Children at the University of Maryland, children sorted found outdoor objects by their properties into a wooden tray with labeled compartments.
Observation. The natural world is filled with things for children to observe. Clouds, rain, sprouting seeds from a simple class garden, falling leaves, birds, insects, shadows—all are experienced out-of-doors. Teachers will want to encourage children to observe carefully and formulate questions to be answered through active inquiry and discovery. Teachers will record the observations of younger children (who cannot write), while older children can record their observations in a science journal or on chart paper. Woyke (2004) suggests that one important goal in any nature-based education is to foster a child’s sense of wonder. Wonder happens when a child rolls a log over and finds a colony of tiny creatures. Wonder cannot be taught, but children develop it through discovery and ample opportunity to investigate the outdoors. Worth and Grollman (2003) describe the story of a teacher of 4- and 5-year-old children in an urban public school. Her class was able to study animals outdoors in their natural environment. The essential element of the story is: The teacher needs to get herself and the children ready to be naturalists. The teacher spent a lot of time in the school yard examining what was to be found. Then she made sure the children had the tools for their investigations—in this case, hand lenses and Popsicle sticks to pick living things up without hurting them. Finally, she instilled in the children a respect for the living things in the outdoor environment.
- Opportunities to cooperate with others. An important part of children’s explorations is telling others what they see, what they think, and what further questions are raised by their experiences. “Children should have lots of time to talk about what they observe and to compare their observations with those of others” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993, p. 6). Benchmarks for Science Literacy further suggests that by kindergarten, children should learn to work in small teams (rather than as isolated individuals) to ask and answer questions about their environment. Yet, consistent with the findings of Piaget (1954), it is noted that children learn by reaching different conclusions and working out disagreements about what their findings mean.
Of course, children play cooperatively indoors, but being outside somehow fosters expansive and often long-term cooperative efforts, for example, to construct large buildings and objects. Complex schemes for rearranging equipment, digging gardens, making cities in the sand, and creating areas for the observation of insects and birds develop and bloom out-of-doors.
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