Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Playing in natural settings

Although I was born in London, when I was 5 my parents moved right to the edge of the city.  The place we moved to was surrounded by a lot of green - in fact when I started school I had to walk across a field to get onto the school bus.  There were endless possibilities for play in the nearby fields, woods, streams and ponds.  When I was still in elementary school I used to walk a neighbour's dog after school.  Mostly I'd head off into the woods, just me and the dog, for this walk and climb a tree.  In the summers my brothers and I often used to build a tree house in the willow tree at the bottom of the garden.  Back in the 1960s we knew next to nothing about environmental problems in different parts of the world but we knew quite a bit about our own local environment.

When I had my own children I was living in Holland - again right on the edge of open green space.  Evenings and weekends would see us out as a family cycling through nature, or maybe walking in the sand dunes or on the beach.  My own children used to do all these activities with us, in contrast to my own childhood when I mostly played outside unsupervised by adults.

I now live in the middle of a huge city of 22 million people where there is not a lot of nature.  The children at my school spend only a small amount of time outdoors every day and playtime is fairly structured.  While these students are very aware of many environmental issues, such as global warming,  water conservation, pollution, threats to our local mangroves and so on, most of them have minimal contact with nature itself.  Although our students can clearly articulate ways they need to save water, or why they should reuse and recycle waste, without this contact with nature I wonder how they will learn to care for our planet in more than just an academic sense.   

In the New Year we will have our second Twitter PYP Bookclub discussion about Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.   I'm interested in the impact of being outside on children, especially when I consider the contrast between the experience students have in Mumbai when compared with the guided play/outdoor education that took place at my last school where our youngest children spent the first hour of every day outside.  One of the arguments in the book is that nature inspires creativity in children, it encourages visualization and the full use of their senses.  Another is that exposure to nature can improve cognitive abilities and resistance to stress.  Studies in a variety of European countries have compared children who play on flat, hard playgrounds with those who spend the same time playing around rocks, trees and uneven ground - these studies have indicated those children who play in natural surroundings do better in areas of motor fitness, balance and agility.  In addition they suffer less from anxiety, anger and depression.

Natural settings and the integration of informal play with formal learning and multisensory experiences are seen as essential for healthy child development.  Natural spaces are seen as similar to "loose-parts" toys (for example Lego) where children can use the parts in many different ways.  The "parts" in a natural play area can include trees, bushes, flowers, long grass, water such as a pond and the creatures that live in water, sand and so on which can fire up a child's imagination and creativity - studies are emerging from many different countries that show that children engage in more creative forms of play in "green areas", in particular more fantasy and make-believe play.  Children also play together in more egalitarian ways than on playgrounds with play equipment and structures - in playgrounds a social hierarchy is established through physical competence in contrast to open grassy areas where students focus less on physical abilities and more on language skills.  In these outdoor spaces it is the more creative children emerge as the leaders.

Recently our R&D team has been considering What If ... questions.  One of my questions was what if students had to spend one lesson of each day outside?  How would this affect their physical, social and emotional development?

I'm interested in hearing from teachers who work in schools where there is a culture of outdoor education.  Please drop me a line if you would be willing for me to contact you to find out more about the things your students do outdoors.

1 comment:

  1. Rebecca and I began to develop an outdoor learning program in Gr. 3 last year. We committed to one lesson per week outside (irrespective of the weather) and I think it worked really well. It certainly helped make our program more trans-disciplinary and the students seemed to respond positively to the experience. I'd like to get something happening here in Korea next year but there are a few obstacles (cultural & environmental factors) that need to be overcome. I'd be happy to talk more about this if you like - or contact Rebecca (she presented at the IB conference about it this year).