The Perks of Outdoor Play and Learning in Childhood

Most  kids today  don’t spend large portions of their day catching bugs and making mud pies. In a nation moving towards an electronic-driven society of its education system, preschools centered around getting kids outside to explore aren’t normal. But that’s exactly what students do here at Fort Mill Cooperative  Preschool. Here, every day, all of our children ages 1 to 12 come to have adventures on our property, which includes an outdoor learning classroom, complete with mud kitchens;, micro farm and even a tee-pee.. These nature adventurers stand out a great deal when many American Pre-K programs have become more and more similar to K–12 education: tables of tiny kids,  being  instructed letter identification and counting through worksheets and smart boards. Even though this seems normal for many schools, why is it so unusual  for 3-year-olds to spend the bulk of their time in the outdoors? When did America decide that preschool should be repetitive routines presented within four classroom walls? Today’s kids are growing up where American childhood is more and more indoors and technologically driven. Families spend more time indoors and on screens. Smartphones have robbed the childhood experience. Perhaps as part of reaction to those trends, the US is seeing a new movement to reintroduce childhood with the natural world. Nature preschools, outdoor Pre-K and forest kindergartens are starting in communities all over the country. The Natural Start Alliance, a group advocating for more outdoor experiences in early education, says that the number of “nature-based preschools” has grown at least 500 percent since 2012. Outdoor education is right in line with a host of other educational trends. The main idea that children grow best when adults grant them space, time, freedom to explore and get muddy. Fort Mill Cooperative Preschool empowers children by offering them a nurturing and developmentally appropriate experience, both within the classroom and nature-based environment. We are a community of learners. In partnership with children, families and educators, we collaborate to construct enriched learning experiences. For the most part, the idea of outdoor learning in early education is a targeted, structured intervention to foster children’s healthy development and eventual success. No wonder outdoor early childhood education—with its  promise that children will develop best if adults spend less time trying to intentionally develop them—seems so radical. How can and should early childhood education programs balance the competing demands of academics and outdoor play? Most kids could benefit from more time outside, but it’s hard to imagine that they don’t also need time with interesting, vocabulary-rich books. Is it possible to capture the benefits of unstructured time in nature within the structures of public early education? Mundo Verde, a Pre-K–5th-grade charter school in Washington, D.C., is trying. The school gets kids outdoors by organizing learning into “expeditions”—students dive deeply into a topic, peaks in an excursion that allows them to expand on what they’ve been doing in class. For example, when Mundo Verde second-graders study rocks, they visit the nearby Luray Caverns and collect fossils at Calvert Cliffs. At the end of a unit on balls, the school’s preschoolers design ball games to play with classmates in a nearby park. In closing, it is obvious why children learn best in an outdoor environment. We believe that children learn through play and outdoor experiences that foster independence, exploration and learning through hands-on experiences, rather than notebook paper and pencils. 

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