The case for getting children outdoors has been made. So why are they still not spending enough time in nature? Certainly families play an important role in making outdoor time a lifelong habit. But the fact remains that with children in school or daycare more than half their waking hours, we depend on educational institutions and the professionals that run them to get our kids outdoors. If your kids attend one of the growing number of schools or day cares that prioritize outdoor time, then great. If not, then this blog post is for you!
Convincing educators to prioritize outdoor play and learning
While some are fully onboard, support from parents can be key to encouraging educators to prioritize time outdoors. The following are resources you can use to help make the case for getting kids outside. Start by sharing some of the research. This infographic developed by Fuse Consulting Ltd and this infographic designed by the Child and Nature Network (C&NN) summarize the benefits of outdoor play and nature play. Check out Outdoor Play Canada's online library for resources to help you advocate for outdoor play: in fact that's where we found many of the resources highlighted here. While information is great, there is no substitute for inspiration, and Project Wild Thing has that in spades: a tongue and cheek documentary about a father so moved by the benefits and challenges of getting children outdoors that he signs up to run Mother Nature's marketing campaign.
A to Zs of outdoor learning and play
So the teachers are sold, but have no idea what to do next? There are a number of comprehensive "how to" resources and trainings that take educators through the steps of transforming schools and child care centres from couch potato factories into launching pads for healthy, active, creative and earth loving visionaries. .
The Outdoor PLAYbook offers a selection of leading research and best practices for schools in the following areas: landscape architecture, sustainable design, economic and phasing strategies, child development, injury prevention, and outdoor educational opportunities.
Outside Play is an online tool to help parents and caregivers confidently allow their kids to engage in more outdoor play.
Thrive Outside is the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada's outdoor learning and play resource portal.
Sadly, not all school yards back out onto vast tracks of wilderness. These resources can help educators (and parent volunteers) make improvements to outdoor spaces so that they bring more of the benefits of a wilderness. The Canadian Wildlife Federation provides some guidance. In addition to covering the latest research on outdoor play, risky play, and play in nature, this webinar tackles how to design outdoor ECE spaces.
Now that they're outdoors, what do they do?
Children who grow up playing in nature, learning from older siblings and neighbors who also grew up playing in nature, don't need adults to tell them how to have fun outdoors. Sadly many children don't, and educators can be at a loss as to how to get them started. Or worse still, they get in the way of children figuring outdoor play out for themselves. That's where loose parts play, risky play (and lots of other approaches ending in play) come in.
Things to play with
Outdoor loose parts play refers to unstructured outdoor play with open ended natural materials (i.e. what kids do naturally). In a wilderness area the natural environment supplies all the loose parts necessary to have fun and learn (though we may choose to bring certain tools into nature that are harder to build from scratch, e.g. a hand saw for building forts). However, it may be necessary to add some of these elements - sticks, rocks, pine cones, water, soil, plants - back in to a barren school or day care playground.
The best way to explain loose parts play is to see it with your own eyes, which is why Dr. Michelle Stone and her team at Play Outside NS developed this video that showcases the many ways children engaged in creative, unstructured play at a loose parts play pop-up event.
The Loose Parts Play Toolkit, written by Theresa Casey and Juliet Robertson and published by Inspiring Scotland, provides adults with guidelines on how to develop the skills to support inclusive, all-weather, unstructured, and imaginative outdoor play.
The great thing about loose parts play is that it's free or almost free, but for institutions wanting to purchase outdoor equipment, the Outdoor Play Canada’s Active Toy Guide provides some suggestions.
Playing with risk
Another way of describing how children naturally play outdoors is "risky play." They swing sticks, walk along logs, slide down river banks and throw rocks. In our modern society, risky play has become almost taboo, an attitude the following resources are trying to undo.
The Saskatchewan Prevention Institute takes the view that Risk in Play actually protects children from harm and following from this provide parents and educators with tips and resources to promote it. The Introduction to Risky Play Workshop of the Child Nature Alliance of Canada provides the research, tools and language educators need to support risky play with confidence.
Taking the classroom outdoors
While open ended play is a terrific way to experience and connect with nature, there is a place for educator led outdoor activities.
A Walking Curriculum: includes walking-focused activities designed to engage students’ emotions and imaginations to broaden their awareness, and to evoke their sense of wonder.
And for those looking to deepen children's intellectual understanding of natural environments the NatureBlitz Toolkit and The Nature Playbook show educators how to facilitate nature exploration activities.
Indeed most activities children do indoors can be adapted to be held outdoors and the DASH outdoor classroom and Back to Nature Network Teachers’ Guide do just that. The former includes outdoor classroom checklists, tips for working with parents and school administrators.
Getting other parents onboard
In my conversations with educators about why children are not spending more time outdoors, many of them say that parents are not supportive of the idea. Encouraging families to spend time in nature goes hand in hand with encouraging child care centres and schools to get kids outdoors.
Stewardship and Kinship provides many ideas for nature-based family activities broken down by age to help cultivate a sense of wonder and natural curiosity.
Every day of the Outdoor Adventure Calendar features a new active outdoor adventure for families. Activities include outdoor and indoor ideas, small group and individual activities, ideas requiring minimal equipment, and parent-free options to give dad and mom a break.
The South Shore Active Communities has developed this infographic on the Adult Role in Outdoor Play which is as good for ECEs, teachers and playground supervisors as it is for parents.
Active For Life has put together a collection of articles to help parents nudge their children to lace up their sneakers and have fun playing out in the fresh air!
A very specific complaint educators make is that children are not properly dressed for outdoor time, especially on rainy days and in the winter. To help with this Oromedonte Forest School's layering infographic and Chelsea Forest School's guide (and video) show parents how to dress their kids for all weather. Negative attitudes about the outdoors can also get in the way of children having a good time, something this great No such thing as "bad" weather infographic tries to address.
Ready, set, go!
So, clearly there's no shortage of resources out there to help educators get children into nature. And what's more there is a growing movement of parents, educators, health professionals and environmentalists working to get more children outside. So what have you tried? What's worked? What more do you need help with?