Can We Go Outside Today?

Peyten WilliamsGuest post by

Peyten Williams
(M.T. ’06 English Ed)

Recently, nature has been on my mind. It might have something to do with this time of year. Spring in Atlanta draws me outside like no other season, much to my sinus’ chagrin.

It might be that I’m tired of seeing kids spending their free time inside the building, eyes-glued-to-their-computers. It might be that I’ve encountered too many awesome articles (like this one “Hey Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone”), books like Last Child in the Woods and Free Range Kids, and films like Mother Nature’s Child, and their philosophy rings true for me.

Even if you haven’t encountered similar research, I bet you’d nod your head in agreement with the following statements:

“Humans are built to walk, cook, create, and tell stories.”

One of my favorite educational bloggers, Shawn Cornally, has written a post called “Designing School for Humans.” In it, he contrasts those essential human desires—walking, cooking, creating, and story telling—with the activities upon which students frequently take part during the school day—sitting in desks, taking tests, listening to lectures. Perhaps if we got outside a bit more during the school day, we’d make time to feed our more human needs. I guarantee if we walked, cooked, created, and told stories, we’d have more kids who liked to be at school.

Being outside helps people calm down and focus.

What do you do when you’re upset? Go for a walk. Outside. We know that research supports (see sources above) that children with a tendency to bully show much more pro-social behavior when they have the ability to go outside in nature.

Being outside fosters creative thinking, collaboration, problem solving and risk taking.

A typical jungle gym these days provides little need for creative thinking, collaboration, or problem solving. The steps are all equidistant, the handles the same circumference, the structures and textures eerily similar across multiple playgrounds. But put a child by a creek bed, and playing suddenly requires the mind to engage. How can I get across this creek without getting wet? What do I do when I’ve slid down the hill? How might I catch this minnow? These textures of trees are different: I wonder why?

Kids prefer to tame the wild edges than play in the safe zone.

In playgrounds, left unsupervised, children tended to head to the “edges” or “wild” parts of the playground according to Last Child in the Woods. There is something inherently human about wanting to explore the wild parts of nature. Never has this concept been made clearer to me than in my own backyard. There is a retention pond, typically dry, where three of my neighbors- a coterie of 7 year-old girls whose parents do a great job of shooing them outside on a daily basis- have built a fort. In the cookie-cutter neighborhood I live in, yard space is at a minimum, but the girls decided, all on their own, to pry open the fence door, and make a castle in the only wilderness they could find.

Children thrive and learn by taking risks.

Any teacher who has graduated from “teacher-school” knows about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. One way I tend to apply this principal is in watching children play. Initially, they tend to mimic adults, then ask for help from adults, but once the children have “internalized” the idea, they can do it on their own. Usually this transition of learning must include a “Goldilocks zone of challenge” where what the child needs to do is hard, but not too hard. Children, well, let’s be honest, everyone loves to overcome something difficult. Being out in nature provides many of these opportunities to take safe risks. Can I jump across this mud puddle? Can I climb this tree? How high? Can I pick a blackberry without getting pricked? When a child accomplishes a task that initially seemed a little bit risky, that child learns confidence, initiative, and skill.

So What?

So what are the ramifications of all of these ideas we know to be true? First, if we know all the good that unstructured outside time has for children, why are we systematically taking away that time from them?

Adults take this time away in the name of safety. We teach children stranger-danger; we don’t let them out of sight of an adult.  Even though statistics show that violence against children has decreased, we increasingly worry about that maniac-abductor we hear about on the news. My colleague Clark Meyer (who blogs here) likes to say that we “choose the certainty that our children will lose all of the benefits of being outside because of the smallest chance that they might get hurt.” What we don’t account for in this choice is the certitude of the risks to our children’s well being that stem from a lack of contact with the outdoors. If children who are outside frequently learn to take safe risks, show pro-social behavior, and stay calm, we also know that children who lose this contact with nature end up taking riskier-risks, show anti-social behavior, and tend to act out.

We also take this time away in the name of resume building. If my child must take karate class, piano, play three sports, and do summer-fall ball and summer chemistry to “get ahead,” where is the time left for unstructured play?

When Clark and I asked our 8th grade students about their time to play outside, they also mentioned another time factor—one that teachers can control. They said, “We don’t have time to go outside because we have to do so much homework.” Teachers, think about the homework that you assign. We know that in good pedagogy, homework should be for practice. Do your students need to practice your work every day? Let’s think carefully about what we assign for our students to do outside of class and be mindful of what they can’t do because they must do our work instead.

Coaches, be mindful. Parents, be mindful. Teachers, be mindful.

On that next, sunny, spring day, when your students plead with longing, doubtful eyes, “Can we go outside today?” What will your answer be? Perhaps it’s time to say yes.

Peyten enjoys donning the following hats:  Wife and mother, English Teacher, Reader, Professional Learning Community Facilitator, Gardener without a green thumb, Yoga enthusiast, Foodie and wannabe chef, Nature lover and hiker, Writer and Poet, Integration Specialist, and Homeroom advisor. She blogs at Superfluous Thought. Follow her on twitter @EPDWilliams

The following photos show a “fort” my neighbors built against a drain in the detention pond area in our back yard. They leaned sticks and rocks against the concrete drain to build a rudimentary shelter in the wildest part of our yard.

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