Go out and play!

Children need outdoor play time to become better learners.

Boy blowing bubbles

Schools are becoming more focused on meeting academic performance measures for every child. In an effort to meet these standards, policy makers, administrators and teachers are trying to squeeze every precious minute of the school day for academics. Unfortunately, the one thing that is being squeezed out is recess.

Recess has been a traditional part of preschool through elementary school. It is a time when students can go outside, run around and interact with peers. When looked at as simply a play break, some might feel it is frivolous use of academic time and deprives children of guided learning from teachers.

However, if we applied the same principles to adults, then it would make sense that we should eliminate morning and afternoon breaks and shorten lunch periods to increase productivity in the work place. There are unions and other laws in place that protect our adult rights to breaks, and for good reason. We need them. In addition, some innovative companies that are viewed as extremely productive and creative have found ways to make "play" a part of the workday.

So what exactly do children get from running around, swinging, yelling and just chatting on the playground? Are there any benefits? There is quite a bit of research that shows a multitude of benefits of children taking part in recess or free play outdoors.

Outdoor play:

  • Offers children an opportunity to be more creative.
  • Lets children do what they are interested in: run, learn sports, climb, talk and look at bugs.
  • Provides children with hands-on learning through being able to manipulate natural materials like dirt, leaves, rocks and bugs.
  • Provides a physical outlet for pent up energy. Physical exercise can reduce stress levels and put children in a calm state so they are more receptive to teacher led indoor lessons.
  • Provides children with time to practice critical social skills such as negotiating who is on a team, making up rules for a game, taking turns on the slide and talking with friends about life (“Who’s coming to your birthday party?” “How mean is your sister?”).
  • Improves children’s mental health by giving them a chance to rejuvenate, relax and return to class with renewed interest.

Some experts have taken this outdoor approach even further to suggest ways to teach math, science and reading as outdoor lessons. Ruth Wilson’s book “Nature and Young Children” offers guidance in outdoor learning such as alternative settings for nature-focused learning, and cross curricular approaches.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children also says that outdoor play is essential to the healthy development of young children. Their recent article, "Rocking and Rolling. Fresh Air, Fun, and Exploration: Why Outdoor Play Is Essential for Healthy Development," provides nine benefits of outdoor play.

You can find many resources for keeping kids actively engaged outdoors by exploring the Michigan State University Extension website. Michigan 4-H Youth Development programs offer many opportunities to engage young people in experiential learning, including outdoor activities and clubs.

We need to ensure all children are provided with ample time outside engaged in free play. We need to advocate for adequate recess time during the school day. Having happier, healthier children means having children who are able to learn more, get along with others and grow up to be productive adults.

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