This is the second in our extended series of episodes on children’s play. We kicked off last week with a look at the benefits of play in general for children, and now we’re going to take a more specific look at the benefits of outdoor play. Really, if someone could bottle up and sell outdoor play they’d make a killing, because it’s hard to imagine something children can do that benefits them more than this.
This episode also tees up our conversation, which will be an interview with Dr. Scott Sampson on his book How To Raise A Wild Child, which gives TONS of practical suggestions for getting outdoors with children.
Other episodes referenced in this show
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Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science 19(12), 1207-1212.
Brussoni, M., Rebecca, G., Gray, C., Ishikawa, T., & Sandseter, E.B.H. (2015). What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12(6), 6243-6454.
Centers for Disease Control and Prvention (2016). Playground safety. Author. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/safechild/playground/index.html
Capaldi, C.A., Dopko, R.L., & Zelenski, J.M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5, 1-15.
Gregory, A. (2017, May 18). Running free in Germany’s outdoor preschools. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/t-magazine/germany-forest-kindergarten-outdoor-preschool-waldkitas.html?_r=0
Hung, W. (2013). Problem-based learning: A learning environment for enhancing learning transfer. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 137(31), 27-38. doi 10.1002/ace.20042
Lund, H.H., Klitbo, T., & Jessen, C. (2005). Playware technology for physically activating play. Artificial Life and Robotics 9(4), 165-174.
Mawson, W.B. (2014). Experiencing the ‘wild woods’: The impact of pedagogy on children’s experience of a natural environment. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 22(4), 513-524.
Moss, S. (2012). Natural Childhood. London: The National Trust.
Nash, R. (1982). Wilderness and the American Mind (3rd Ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Natural Playgrounds Company (2017). Website. Retrieved from http://www.naturalplaygrounds.com/
Outdoor Foundation (2017). Outdoor Participation Report. Author. Retrieved from https://outdoorindustry.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/2017-Outdoor-Recreation-Participation-Report_FINAL.pdf
Otto, S., & Pensini, P. (2017). Nature-based environmental education of children: Environmental knowledge and connectness to nature, together, are related to ecological behavior. Global Environmental Change 47, 88-94.
Potvin, P., & Hasni, A. (2014). Interest, motivation, and attitude towards science and technology at K-12 levels: A systematic review of 12 years of educational research. Studies in Science Education 50(1), 85-129.
Richardson, M., Cormack, A., McRobert, L., & Underhill, R. (2016). 30 days wild: Development and evaluation of a large-scale nature engagement campaign to improve well-being. PLOS ONE 11(2), 1-13.
Roisin, H. (2014, April). The overprotected kid. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/
Scott, J. (2000, July 15). When child’s play is too simple; Experts criticize safety-conscious recreation as boring. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/15/arts/when-child-s-play-too-simple-experts-criticize-safety-conscious-recreation.html
Sloan, C. (2013). Transforming multicultural classrooms through creative place-based learning. Multicultural Education 21(1), 26-32. Retreived from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1045830.pdf
Ulset, V., Vitaro, F., Brengden, M., Bekkhus, M., & Borge, A.I.H. (2017). Time spent outdoors during preschool: Links with children’s cognitive and behavioral development. Journal of Environmental Psychology 52, 69-70.
Waite, S., Rogers, S., & Evans, J. (2013). Freedom, flow, and fairness: Exploring how children develop socially at school through outdoor play. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 13(3), 255-276.
Waller, T., Arlemalm-Hager, E., Sandseter, E.B.H., Lee-Hammond, L., Lekies, K., & Wyver, S. (2017). The SAGE handbook of outdoor play and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Williams, F. (2017). The nature fix. New York, NY: WW Norton.
Wyver, S. (2017). Outdoor play and cognitive development. In T. Waller, E. Arlemalm-Hagster, E.B. Hansen Sandseter, L. Lee-Hammond, K.S. Lekies, and S. Wyer (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of outdoor play and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Young, J., McGown, E., & Haas, E. (2010). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature. Owlink Media.
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’re part-way through a series of as-yet undetermined length on play at the moment. We kicked off with a conversation with Dr. Stuart Brown on the overarching topic of why play is important not only to children, but also to adults. Today we’re going to talk about outdoor play, and this is such a big topic that we’re going to split it up a bit. Today we’ll talk about why outdoor play is so critical for children’s development, and then soon we’ll talk with Dr. Scott Sampson about realistic ways that real people can really get their children outside more (and, preferably, get outside more with their children). Hopefully after that we’ll also look at risky play, and maybe even imaginary play…but let’s take things one at a time.
The way we have defined “nature” and “wilderness” has changed a lot over the years. Park Ranger Jen is going to come out for a few minutes here – perhaps it won’t surprise some of you who have seem pictures of us in my fortnightly newsletter grubbing around in the muck that I used to want to be a ranger for the National Park Service – and preferably at a park in the middle of nowhere. A lot of days I still do, but you have to be realistic when you marry a guy who works in advertising.
European settlers of the New World were familiar with wilderness even before they got here because at that time there was still quite a bit of wilderness on the continent. The most notable idea they had was that wilderness is something different and alien from man, something that civilization can and should and must struggle against. Judeo-Christian tradition is filled with this kind of symbolism, and it had an enormous impact on the settlers. “Good” land is flat and fertile; “good” trees produce shade, or fruit, or preferably both; water is plentiful, the climate is mild, and animals live in harmony with man. Picture the Garden of Eden – it’s a fecund place where branches are drooping with fruit, there’s no need to be afraid of any animal, and Adam and Even don’t need to do any work to survive – but after they sin in the garden they are driven out into the wilderness. This view of wilderness in the Judeo-Christian religion is in stark contrast to the way wilderness was viewed in other places; many of India’s early religions, including Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism emphasize compassion for all living things because man is a part of nature, not apart from it. The ancient Chinese sought out wilderness in the hope of more clearly understanding the unity and rhythm that they believed pervaded the universe. Japan’s first religion, Shinto, was a form of nature worship that actually preferred mountains, forests, and storms over the fruitful, pastoral scenes so important to Westerners. We grew intermittently softer and less-soft toward wilderness over the years until the 1960s and ‘70s, when the terms “environment” and “ecology” became household words. For the first time in a long time we started to see ourselves as being a part of nature, although it’s a neater idea in theory than in practice. We increased the pace of setting aside lands for conservation purposes, signing the Wilderness Act in 1964 which specifically provides for places that are “untrammeled by man.” This makes wilderness areas unlike the national parks which had been created sixty years earlier, because in parks people and nature had always uneasily coexisted, at least – white visitors and nature had, because all the natives had to be kicked out before the park was created. Some of us now view wilderness as a place to go to feel renewed, but then we want to go back to our technology-centered lives and we sort of forget about wilderness until the next time we want to feel renewed. Many children these days understand why we should recycle and can tell you about endangered species and climate change, but have no physical experience with nature themselves. I’m going to argue today that if we can reframe the way we see wilderness and nature and see it as part of our everyday lives, rather than ‘that amazingly cool thing over there that we only visit very occasionally,’ that both we and our children will benefit.
I also want to try to carefully acknowledge – without unintentionally stepping on anyone’s toes – that there are a lot of issues related to colonialist, industrialist, capitalist that we should acknowledge when we talk about nature and our relationship with it. Indigenous and First Nations communities in many, many places around the world see a spiritual connection to nature as just part of how life is lived, as inextricable from human life. While these cultures have this idea of a connection to nature in common, they are each unique in the way in which they express that connection – the cultures may have commonalities across them but they are not monolithic. Colonization has obviously had what we can politely call a negative impact on native peoples in the U.S. and in many other countries, and I think we should acknowledge that for years now we’ve told indigenous peoples that their way of life is wrong and that they need to live the way we live and adapt to our customs and practices, and now we’re seeing that their cultural practices and the way in which they see themselves as a part of nature actually has a great deal of value, and that we should somehow try to understand these practices without appropriating them like we’ve appropriated things like dreamcatchers and headdresses and Pocahontas. I’m the first to say that this is not my area of expertise and am not exactly sure where this line of appropriation lies, or whether we might cross it by accident, but I at least want to acknowledge that the line exists and also that, as usual, the vast majority of research on children related to the outdoors has been conducted on white children by white researchers, and the perspectives of people from non-dominant cultures are not well represented.
It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has read – or even heard of – Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods that children are spending less time than they were even just a generation ago – a LOT less time. A raft of studies shows children spending less time outside, more time in front of the TV and computer, and a dramatic increase in the incidence of childhood obesity. We’re beginning to understand why that is – nature is filled with inherently fascinating scenery which attracts our attention in a gentle, general way. Urban environments (and digital media) demand our directed attention so we don’t get hit by a car, or so we can get better at whatever is the hot video game app this week, which is mentally tiring for us.
A generation ago, children found nature everywhere – in vacant lots, in fields, in ditches – as they roamed with friends for hours at a time unsupervised. Journalist Hanna Rosin wrote her seminal article The Overprotected Kid in The Atlantic in 2014 that when her daughter was about 10, her husband suddenly realized that in her daughter’s whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.
In the U.K., the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90% – half of all children used to regularly play in wild spaces a generation ago, and now it’s less than one in ten. Children don’t walk to school alone any more, or play outside by themselves – instead they’re indoors and if they’re aged between four and nine they spend on average over 17 hours a week watching TV or playing video games. The Outdoor Foundation (which is funded by the National Park Service and outdoor retailers) found that participation of all people over six years old in outdoor activities (not including organized sports) declined between 2006 and 2016, but the participation rate of 6-12-year-olds declined the most – 15%. Most of that decline happened between 2006 and 2009, and it’s been pretty much flat-lined at around 62% of children participating for the last several years. Journalist Florence Williams reports in her book The Nature Fix that two thirds of schoolchildren do not know acorns come from trees, and while she doesn’t source that particular nugget and I couldn’t find it independently, the overall feeling is one that is echoed in other reports.
At the same time, academics are being pushed ever-harder in schools, in the name of helping individuals to ‘get ahead’ so companies can sell more stuff and our GDP can rise ever-higher. As we see often in parenting, when we prioritize one thing we inherently de-prioritize something else – just because we can’t pay attention to everything. If we prioritize academics, we de-prioritize spending time outdoors and engaging in unstructured play.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are more than 1500 forest kindergartens in Germany – some have a kind of ‘home base’ structure for bad weather but others just shuttle the children to a park on public transit, and keep them outdoors whatever the weather. Children don’t play with toys, but with sticks, rocks, leaves, and whatever else they can find. Far from being wild, uncivilized children who struggle in schools, forest kindergarten graduates have a “clear advantage” over the graduates of indoor kindergartens, outperforming their peers in cognitive and physical ability, as well as creativity and social development. The Wild Network, an organization that tries to increase the amount of nature in children’s lives, has identified several barriers to what it calls Wild Time, which are categorized into four groups. In the fear category are stranger danger, a risk-averse culture, and dangerous streets. Time constraints include time-poor parents, a lack of nature in the curriculum, and a lack of unstructured free play in nature. Spatial issues include vanishing green space and the commercialization of childhood seems to be lumped in here as well, while the rise of screen time is the primary technological concern. It’s too simplistic to say that too much of all of these things is always terrible – for example, technology can be a great enabler of the outdoors. My 3 ½-year-old is getting into geocaching, where you use a map on a phone to locate a small hidden object – I mostly use the technology at the moment but I’m sure she’s going to want to do it soon. I would argue that our children can handle more risk than most of us let them experience, but how much is the right amount?
As I mentioned earlier, part of the problem of getting children outside is that their parents have a perception that danger lurks around every corner, which is why playgrounds in Western countries tend to consist of a play structure, some rubberized flooring to prevent injuries, and a fence around the outside to keep people who aren’t supposed to be playing with their children out. In the 1960s, children were safe wandering around New York City because neighbors and shopkeepers kept a collective eye out for children as they played. Today that collective responsibility has been replaced by governmental actions (for example, putting signs on playgrounds saying that adults may not enter without a child) and quasi-governmental organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which aims to safeguard children but also contributes to the feeling that stranger danger is a real thing. In reality, children are almost never kidnapped from playgrounds. Family members are usually involved when children are kidnapped, and even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is refocusing its attention away from putting missing children’s pictures on milk cartons and toward child molestation, which unfortunately remains an enormous problem.
I only want to address injuries briefly, because we’ll cover them in greater depth in the episode on risky play, but I do want to make the point that while the Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency departments every year for injuries sustained at playgrounds, this number has remained steady as the population has increased and most of the injuries treated were minor with the child being sent home without being admitted. 40 children died on playgrounds in the eight-year period between 2001 and 2009, mostly from either strangulation related to swings, jump ropes, dog leashes, and the like, or falls. While these deaths are tragic, we should put that into context: the same number of children are killed on our roads every two weeks. The result of the focus on reducing injuries is the standardization of play equipment, which is why you can walk into pretty much any playground across the country and see the same bog-standard equipment – a metal pipe climbing structure, a slide, as few moving parts as possible, and a sea of rubber mat flooring. I’m probably going to do an episode dedicated to risky play in this series so I won’t get into it too deeply here, but I do want to mention that the type of outdoor play that most Americans think of with the standard playground structure surrounded by a fence and with rubberized flooring underfoot isn’t really very interesting or challenging for children. This model has developed through parents and cities trying to remove all risk from playgrounds and while playground standards have been effective at reducing death from strangulation which used to be much more common, they have also removed most of the challenge that gave children a reason to play there. The research provides cautious evidence supporting the idea that risky play encourages children to play more, and promote social interactions, creativity, and resilience, and accident rates per 1,000 hours of risky play are much lower than when children participated in sporting activities.
Some researchers think that excessive predictability of playgrounds leaves children unable to cope with anything that doesn’t fit that mold. They lose the ability to judge risk, and then they get hurt when they come across something different.
Personally, I think that a large part of the problem here is that it’s hard for anyone to make money off playgrounds that are locally manufactured out of locally-appropriate materials – it’s a much better business model to have a standard set of offerings that recreation department managers can select from a catalog. There are some exceptions – the Natural Playgrounds Company builds locally-appropriate playgrounds in a way that invites children to interact with materials in a challenging and yet inherently safe way. Their website says a contractor estimated a cost of $100,000 to build a 22,000 square-foot natural playground which has soooo many things in it – a rain garden, a labyrinth, an amphitheater, a big sand play area, a fairy village, a stream, caves, combing elements, a slide built into a hill, fruit trees, benches, a discovery path, and so on – this is apparently about the same as the cost to build a 3,000 square foot traditional play structure with rubberized flooring – a fraction of the size of the Natural Playgrounds one. I was also amused to note that this is approximately the same price as I was quoted a couple of years ago to do some minor relandscaping of our garden in Berkeley which measures about 300 square feet. Needless to say, that plan is on hold for the indefinite future – and as a result of doing this research I’m in the process of installing a mini adventure playground for our daughter. Stay tuned for more info to come on that in future episodes.
I’d also like to spend a bit of time talking about technology and outdoor play, since this intersects with other ideas we’ve studied – notably on raising children in a digital world, and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on screen time.
So what are the impacts of technology on children’s play, and how is this linked to outdoor play? The famous psychologist Jerome Bruner theorized that the first type of cognition to develop comes through doing things that children love to do – rolling balls, climbing steps, pouring water, rolling down hills, digging in dirt or sand, help them to understand how the world works. This becomes a building block for the stage where one object can ‘stand for’ another, which is how a play structure becomes a pirate ship. In the third stage children further develop their use of language and other symbolic codes, which rides on what they learned in the previous two stages. Doris Bergen, Professor Emerita at Miami University, was at the forefront of research on technology and play until her recent retirement, and was concerned that if children don’t get enough time in that first stage of active, physical play because they were sedentary, spending time with technology, that they won’t be able to develop the cognitive structures they need to fully engage in the subsequent levels.
Another view on the topic of technology comes from theorists who say that things in a child’s environment have inherent qualities that say how they can be used. These qualities are grouped into categories – transparency, challenge, and accessibility. Transparency is about whether you can immediately see what to do with an object when you see it – children don’t need to be trained how to use a ball because its shape suggests what they should do with it. Transparent objects may have more than one use – a child could run down a hill or slide down it, or they could stir up a muddy puddle with a stick or jump in it. Technology may have different levels of transparency as well – anyone who has witnessed a two-year-old manipulating apps on an iPhone knows they can find their way around if they need to, but may technology-based tools come with specific instructions because they can only be played with in one very restrictive way.
The second category, challenge, is about how many different possibilities there are to play with an item. Blocks, clay, and water can be played with in many different ways. Some outdoor toys like slides and swings are minimally challenging for children so they make their own challenges by standing up on the swing (or jumping off it), or going down the slide on their stomachs or head-first. Indoors, children may combine elements of different kinds of toys to increase their challenge, but it is difficult to change the challenge level of a technological toy because they are designed to do one specific thing. When a toy is transparent and easy to figure out, it’s usually a one-finger kind of operation, not a whole body experience. Further, the child doesn’t get to ask their own questions and find problems that they want to solve; they’re presented with a problem that the technology designer created.
The third category, accessibility, is about whether the item invites interactions with other people (even though I’m not exactly sure what accessibility has to do with interactions). Many things that are found and played with outdoors invite or require more than one person’s participation, which learning theorists like Lev Vygotsky think is critical to children’s development. If that name sounds familiar, he was behind concepts like scaffolding, which we covered a looong time ago on the show, and his work also underlies much of the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education – we did an episode on that too. Some technological toys invite cooperation but this often occurs virtually, and when two children in the same room want to play with a technological toy one often has to play, while the other watches and waits (and probably agitates for his turn).
Researchers who have studied children’ interactions with technological toys invariably seem to find that the amount and quality of interactions with parents or other children is more limited than when what’s called the “target child” plays with a non-technological toy. This finding has been replicated across a variety of toys and situations – for example, children playing with a fire truck toy spent most of their time trying to figure out what the toy was supposed to do, and when they went beyond this their play was fairly routinized. When parents and children interact with a talking book, most parental speech becomes about the function of the book rather than on the content of the story, and when they play with a fancy shape sorter toy, parents used less spatial language and less variety of language than when they played with the non-technology-enabled toy.
Technologists are in the process of trying to bridge these worlds by designing virtual worlds in which we can go for a walk in the woods, although journalist Florence Williams described found herself getting more motion sick than relaxed when she tried it out, a sensation apparently experienced by around 30% of people trying it – sounds rough to me. Other researchers have developed sensory tiles that light up when a stepped on and which can be installed in playgrounds – picture the Dance Dance Revolution video game from the ‘80s, but without the screen. These researchers are excited about the “body-brain interplay” that “promotes children’s physical play and experimentation” – although once again, the games that can be played with these tiles are ones that have been designed by the researchers rather than the children, and the children might get more out of a flat area of open dirt and a stick that they could use to draw a hopscotch court. I’ve yet to see technology-enabled play equipment that conclusively provides more benefits than just playing outdoors with natural materials.
So let’s talk about the benefits of outdoor play, because it turns out that there are a lot of them.
Many studies have looked at the relationship between play and cognition, or how the child thinks. There are two main arms of this research – looking at impacts on creativity and executive function. Taking a brief look at creativity first, the biggest study on that front looked at the scores from more than 272,000 children between kindergarten and 12th grade on a test of creative thinking. The children were from all over the U.S., although no data was available on socioeconomic status. The major finding from that work was that there has been a decline in children’s creativity between 1990 and 2011. We can’t be sure of the reasons for this, but researchers speculate that the focus in schools on a narrow range of academic abilities and reduced time for play, including outdoor play, may be partly to blame.
The other aspect of cognition that has been well studied is called Executive Function, which is the set of skills that controls where we put our attention and how we use that attention. Executive Function development is critical for children because it has a strong relationship with the control we exert over ourselves in situations like paying attention to the teacher, staying focused in the classroom when Johnny is poking you with a pencil, and sticking with a task even when you don’t enjoy it. It also has a role in factors beyond school like obesity, criminal activity, and drug use.
We don’t exactly understand the mechanism through which play benefits executive function, partly because play takes so many forms that it can be difficult to understand the relationship, and partly because the gold standard for experimental studies requires a highly controlled situation that doesn’t really reflect how children actually play. This means you’re likely to end up with a finding that “if children play in this highly contrived way then they experience x benefit” – but no children actually would really play like that. Studies that don’t follow an experimental design often find a benefit from outdoor play as well (one recent one found a positive relationship between time spent outdoors in preschool and children’s working memory, as well as an inverse relationship between time spent outdoor sand inattention-hyperactivity symptoms) but because these kinds of studies aren’t experimental we can’t be *sure* that it’s the time spent outdoors that causes the effects.
What does seem clear from the collective research is that executive function is very malleable in childhood – if children are supported in developing their executive function then this development will likely occur, but if children don’t get that support then their executive function development will be hampered. There are a number of ways of providing that support, including through specific social and emotional learning interventions in school that can be moderately effective. Other researchers argue that rather than training children to develop executive function skills it would be much cheaper and just as effective to enhance the quality of their play, by providing more and better opportunities for outdoor play, which have a host of other potential benefits as well. Researchers think play supports executive function development because play makes heavy cognitive demands on the brain as the child sets a goal and then works toward achieving it, that making complex motor movements also requires a lot of cognitive load, and that exercise creates physiological changes in the brain. I should caveat, though, that a lot of this research involves play where the researcher says “now go and run around for 10 minutes and then we’ll give you a test” rather than the kind where the children play freely.
Yet ANOTHER benefit of outdoor play is the affordances it offers for children to develop social and emotional skills. The textbook I mentioned that I’d picked up earlier had tantalized me with a statement from a teacher at a forest school in Denmark who said that “We are one of three institutions that feed into the local school. The teachers there are all very happy with our children. They say all the pupils are socially more advanced and are the most ready to learn,” says Grandahl.” I confess that I was a bit disappointed to find that the source for that statement cited in a textbook was none other than an article in the British newspaper The Times, hardly a model of peer-reviewed research, but in the course of research for this episode I was lucky enough to find corroborating evidence. Most of our indoor environments are highly controlled by adults – home is controlled by parents, and school is controlled by teachers – we might say that school exists for the benefit of the children, but really children have very little say over what they learn and how they learn it. By contrast, outdoor spaces have a more ambiguous identity with nobody fully ‘in control,’ which allows children to try on different ways of being and experience agency, which is the idea that you have some power to affect the outcomes of your own life. Because adults don’t exert so much control over outdoor environments, children get a chance to try to solve problems for themselves, to see what efforts are successful and how they might need to modify their approach next time. They get to practice negotiation and socially cohesive behaviors, which – as the preschool teacher in Denmark noticed, gets them labeled as ‘socially advanced’ once they get to school. I do think it’s ironic that it is in adults stepping back and allowing children to do their own thing that children learn a key skill that makes them ready for learning later in life, and that this is more effective than children spending more time with adults being forced to sit still and memorize things like letters and numbers. We do have to acknowledge, though, that children do sometimes use this freedom for nefarious purposes. One group of researchers in England had children wear little felt bags containing audio recorders around their necks as a way of capturing children’s interactions without the presence of adults causing the children to change their behavior. One boy was playing with a doll-house near others who were engaging in boisterous play and another child began to taunt this boy with homophobic slurs which were unobserved by adults, a situation that is obviously undesirable. On the flip-side, playing outdoors gives children a chance to create cohesive play groups on the basis of shared interests rather than because a child looks like them, which is how young children tend to judge whether or not people are like them, and thus, make good playmates.
Research does indicate that rather than spend more time on academic activities to improve our children’s outcomes in school, it would actually be better to spend less time on these activities and more time outdoors playing, doubly especially preschool settings which are nominally preparing children to succeed in school but which may actually – by focusing on academic activities rather than on play – be hampering children’s executive function development.
Richard Louv has a lot to say about the relationship between academic outcomes and being outdoors. In his book Last Child In the Woods he cites a report that was published in 2002 called Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context for learning, which was the summary of a decade-long working group consisting of the education agencies from 12 states in the U.S., which studied the benefits of using the environment as an integrating context for learning. This is also known as place-based learning, and it’s basically the idea that children find it really interesting to learn more about what’s around them. You don’t have to convince a child to be interested in the local park or woods or wetland because they are inherently drawn to these places. Children lose interest in science over the course of their school careers because science doesn’t have any meaning in their lives. When they learn about dry concepts about like leverage from a textbook, they have no use for the information and don’t retain it. When they need to learn about leverage and mass and pulleys to get some materials across a stream because they’ve volunteered to help local park managers to build a trail, they figure it out pretty quickly and they retain the information. And it’s not just physics – students in the classrooms that were piloting place-based learning performed better on standardized tests in reading, writing, math, and social studies; they had fewer disciplinary infractions in the classroom, they had increased enthusiasm for learning, and greater pride and ownership in their learning accomplishments. With results like that, it’s hard to believe that I had to learn about place-based learning in an obscure textbook I happened to pick up while on my layover day in my backpacking trip at the Environmental Education Center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, and not as an integral component of the Master’s in Education that I currently have underway. In fact, the concept has not been mentioned even once, in any of my courses, and each time I sneak in a mention of it my professor says “great stuff!” and I get a great grade, and I’m thinking “why do I have to learn about this stuff on my own time and work it into my papers, rather than the other way around?”
But the crux here, of course, is that it’s not just about increasing the amount of time spent in the outdoors. I can’t tell you to make sure your child spends 20% more time outside and all of a sudden they’ll get better grades in school. The report didn’t just look at taking regular lessons outside, they looked at a wholesale shift in how teaching and learning happen. In an ideal world, teachers stop asking the questions – a radical concept, I know, and then the students start asking them. And when the students ask the questions, they become invested in finding out the answers. This kind of learning can happen inside a classroom, but it tends to work best when it happens in a place students actually care about, which tends to be outdoors – where they can run around and get filthy and where learning looks about as far from a classroom environment as it’s possible to get. The Closing the Achievement Gap report was published in 2002, and aside from some gains in outdoor-based education for preschoolers, and a rise in the number of schoolyard gardens in which students get to spend an hour every few weeks, not much has changed.
There is some debate over the type of access to the outdoors that parents and teachers can and should provide to children, and what kinds of activities should be encouraged when they are there. One researcher in New Zealand followed a group of children at a preschool for six months on their weekly visits to a small local woodland. Three of the group’s teachers were very hands-off in their approach, and waited for the children to come to the teachers with observations and interests, and made no attempt to modify the natural environment. Another four of the teachers were much more hands-on, and created new experiences for the children – a fire pit where marshmallows could be toasted (imagine that happening in a preschool in the U.S.!), a bridge across the stream consisting of a rope to stand on and another to hold onto (imagine THAT happening in a preschool in the U.S.!). These teachers directed the children’s attention to the suitability of different sticks for marshmallow toasting, and the way the tension on the ropes changed as the children crossed the bridge. The researchers didn’t believe that either method was necessarily better than the other and indeed, the children seemed to gain something different out of each type of experience. What parents might want to try to do is to find a balance between calling children’s attention to things the parent finds interesting, and allowing time for the children to follow their own interests and also just have free play time that might seem not particularly goal-oriented to adults. When children have ample time for self-directed learning activities in their indoor lives as well, there’s certainly no harm in introducing ideas in the outdoor setting. Other researchers suggest, though, that when children spend a lot of time in environments where they don’t get to choose what they do that it can be especially valuable to children to use their time outdoors for self-directed, rather than adult-directed play.
Another thing that is implicit in the New Zealand study and that I hope to look into more in the future is the value of knowing one place deeply. The children walked to the same piece of woodland every week, with occasional visits to another woodland a bit further down the same road. I know that people like Jon Young, who have written books about tracking wildlife and becoming really connected with nature advocate for deeply knowing a place by visiting it many, many times in all weathers and seasons. I assume there is also value in knowing other places and how your special place fits in with other special places as well, although I don’t have any research on that either way.
So you’re a parent, and maybe you haven’t spent so much time outside with your child beyond the traditional rubber-floored playgrounds, and maybe you’d like to think about doing something a bit differently. But maybe you’re feeling kind of overwhelmed because you don’t know much about *the environment.* Well, we have an entire episode coming up for you on exactly this topic in the very near future, but in the meantime I’d like to leave you with the findings of another recent study, which found that knowledge about the environment was actually only very weakly related to what the researchers called “ecological behavior.” A far more powerful predictor was connectedness to nature, which was defined as the closeness in relationship between an individual and nature. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if you as the parent can identify twenty bird species or if you can’t tell a crow from a gull. It doesn’t matter if you know which animals live where or why eucalyptus trees have that stringy bark or which plants are native species and which are invaders. It matters far more that you get outside and just have fun playing in mud, dragging kelp along a beach (as my daughter loves to do), collecting leaves, noticing different things around you, and wondering about things that interest you and supporting your child in wondering about things that interest him or her. If you and your child still want to know the answers to your questions when you get home you can find a book at the library or look up answers online, and maybe that will be the beginning of an investigation of trees or birds or who knows what. You don’t have to know everything about nature to enjoy it, or for your child to get enormous benefits from being in it.
Listeners sometimes write and ask me to summarize episodes at the end in case they missed something important. The summary here is: go outside! Have fun! Everything else will follow.