Thursday, July 21, 2016

Advocate for Play: Outdoor Spaces

Whew!   We have covered a lot of ground this week when it comes to active play: 

What is play? 
The role of team sports, movement and play 
Rough housing and outside free play

Remember, this is just the FIRST half of play!  Next week we will move into the role of imaginative play.  Also, this is the first of 4 points to help us provide support as our kids move into the world of school.  Here are the pinterest links; eventually, I will have all the post links connected as well.

A - Advocate for Play
R - Read Aloud
C - Coach academic skills (language and math)
H - Habits for learning

Okay, on to today!

I just need to check in with you quickly.  I am still reeling from the revelation that we should have outdoor free play for 2 to 3 hours a day.  This is not meant to be guilt inducing. My goal is to help us see some of what we might be losing in the search for "the best" for our kids.  Playing is one of the best things we can allow in the life of 4 to 8 year olds.  So, many moms I know have a gut feeling that their kids need time, space and freedom.  I hope that this gives you courage to go with your gut.  Your 4 to 8 year old will not miss out if you let them "just play" - that's what they are supposed to be doing. 

What can we do to make outdoor spaces that invite children to play, risk and imagine? Below are just a few ideas and key phrases to start you on your search for a better outside experience.  

The Outdoor Space 

It's not just a matter of walking to the local playground.  As Hanscom explains in Barefoot and Balanced, many parts of the playground that encouraged risk taking, turning upside down, swinging and spinning, have been removed.  What's a mom to do?  Not only that, actually getting to an outdoor space requires planning - often a car drive, supplies - and then if it is after school there is traffic, dinner and homework.   The idea is simple but execution turns out to be more complicated.  

Really, most things you do inside can be done outside - homework, eating, reading, etc.  If you've ever been to a "backyard VBS" you know what I'm talking about - just bring out some tables and chairs and stay with kids and they will play outside.  That's the other hard part for me - especially at home - I want them to play outside while I get things done inside.  Often we have to go with them and try some masterly inactivity or "wise letting alone". 

Here are some things to look for and add to your own backyard.  

This article hits the high points of the history of the playground and what loose parts means. This is a term to describe providing more natural and man made items that encourage kids to play and experiment.  This includes stumps, logs, water, sand, mud, leaves, acorns, nuts and bolts.  The idea here is that the kids use the "parts" to create whatever they want. It encourages creativity and allows them some of the risk and problem solving we hope they get in the outdoors.  Here are some ideas of what you can include in your backyard.  Here is an innovative program that brings some of these concepts to an after school program and the blog has lots of other pictures and ideas about play.  


Hanscom explains that playgrounds have significantly changed in the last 100 years.  Ideally, your child will have a natural space with rocks, trees, hills and the like as well as open space to run and play.  We may like the bright colors and fancy "play systems" but I thought this was an interesting point 

So the bright shiny playground may not encourage the type of play we are hoping to achieve. Here are some things that you should look for in a playground.  Here is a bit more unusual playground - the junk playground.  

Natural Space

I highly encourage you to evaluate the parks near your home.  Do some of them have a grove of trees, running water, or something else that would encourage real outdoor play?  Near our house we have a few options.  One is a library that has some trees around the playground.  Our kids stay on the playground for about 5 minutes and then end up in the trees (except for chigger season - that was bad).  Another option we have is a regular playground connected to walking paths which have trees all around it.  The third is a nature preserve that has a place where you can go into the river.  I live in an URBAN area (we live close to one of the fastest growing zip codes in the US) but we find a way to make it work.  

Gardening/ Outdoor Work

I have a brown thumb and we don't try to fight the weeds around our house - but we probably should. Gardening and other outdoor work is great for kids.  I do try to dig in the dirt more, let water and dirt mix to make mud and allow my kids to do the same (without freaking out about it).  There are so many types of gardens - square foot, hydroponic, potted, etc.  Andrew Kern, founder of the CIRCE Institute says, 
"As for the natural sciences, I'd begin with gardening (biology, chemistry, and physics combined and alive) and pet care. Have them observe closely and learn everything they can about something they love. That will necessarily grow into something more technical at the right time and in the right way. "

Nature Study 

Honestly, this is a whole different aspect of why kids should be outdoors - but I want to mention it here.  Kids learn to wonder when they watch and question the natural world. A few simple tools can help encourage nature study: notebooks, colored pencils, bug view finders, magnifying glasses, loupes  and the like.  Looking at schedules from public schools 100 years ago - nature study was the sum total of science in elementary school.  It taught kids to observe, wonder, question, record, sketch, enjoy and respect what was around them.  Many advances have been made in science - but these are still the primary tools a scientist uses. As with physical play, there is room for adult encouragement and discussion - but give kids the tools, teach them some basic safety and see what happens.


One of the primary challenges is finding people to play with.  This is especially true if your child is an only or they are spaced farther apart (or if they bicker like mine do).  I am very fortunate to have found a group of moms who also value outdoor play.  We were part of a homeschool coop and afterwards let our children play upwards of 2 hours at the playground at the church.  Then another day of the week we head to a local park with natural areas - kids play while we do a "book" study (we often talk about the book for 15 minutes at the end of a 2 1/2 hour time period).  We try to make it to the nature preserve (mentioned above) as often as we can.  

It seems weird to have to schedule and plan these types of things but we find time for other things we think are important.  Some neighborhoods still have the roam and play feel - but our area does not! 

  • Gather a few friends who would be willing to go to a park a day or two a week after school - instead of a team sport let them free play?  One local school has a group of 3rd to 5th grade boys that are at the park for about an hour after school most days - they have a BLAST!  
  • What about Saturday mornings?  Gather at a bigger park or preserve and have fun.  
  • Does someone you know have access to a neighborhood park, stream or river access near them?  
  • Could you collaborate and equip one person's backyard with "loose parts"?  Maybe rotate who "supervises" while other moms get things done at home or run errands.
  • Maybe your local elementary school could offer an "afterschool program" based on loose parts and play.  Could you help spearhead that effort? 
  • What about your church?  Do they have a playground?  Could it incorporate some of these ideas and allow moms to use it during the week as an outreach?  
  • What if you split duties?  A few moms stay at the park with the kids while the others run errands and then switch.  Then no one has to clean their house - BONUS!
  • If dinner is getting you down, try a crock pot meal, frozen dinner, eat leftovers, make it your night to eat out, pack a picnic dinner and eat at the park, see if someone else in your house can cook that night or have one mom cook and the other "loosely" supervise the kids and then share a the meal together. 
  • Carry play clothes in the car so if inspiration strikes you can get out of uniforms (most schools around here have them) and get down and dirty. 
  • Why not allow your kids to do some of their homework at the park?  Hopefully your 5 and 6 year olds don't have much of it - why not read aloud while lying on a blanket beneath some trees? 
Ideally, you would have a small group (even just a few families) with children of various ages who would be able to play together fairly regularly in a space that encourages creative and "risky" play.  Finding a group or "team" that encourages this type of play regularly can make a huge difference in making this a reality for your kids.  

Food for Thought:

List a few parks or natural spaces near your home.  What are the pros and cons of these areas?  How frequently do you actually get to them? 

Think about your backyard (if you are blessed to have one).  Are there things that you could do to encourage play?  What about just relaxing rules about mud, water and sand?  Do your kids have play clothes, swimsuits, towels and play shoes that are close to the back door? I am thinking about adding an outdoor shower using a  hose around here to make it easier to get clean.  

List three or four friends that might be interested in getting together for free play. What would help make a regular play time a reality for that group?  

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