Everyone who works with young children in early childhood programs and schools knows how quickly bacteria and viruses spread in these environments. One way to reduce the spread of infection is through lots and lots of fresh air. Outdoor play enables the infectious agents to spread out and be dissipated; it also enables children to get fresh air and exercise and be less constrained than they are in the classroom (Aronson, 2002).
Outdoor play also enables children to enjoy the natural environment and learn to seek out exercise, fresh air, and activity. There is something fundamentally healthy about using the outdoors. Thus outdoor play develops disposition for the outdoors, for physical activity, and for care of the environment. Children who engage in lots of physical activities at school tend to engage in more energetic activities at home, while children who have childcare and school experiences that lack active physical activity, engage in more sedentary behaviors at home, such as watching TV and computer use (Dale, Corbin, & Dale, 2000). Children who learn to enjoy the outdoors have a much higher likelihood of becoming adults who enjoy hiking, gardening, jogging, bicycling, mountain climbing, or other outdoor endeavors. This is critical as obesity becomes an ever-greater national concern and as we must all learn to care for and protect the environment.
Using open space to fulfill basic childhood needs—jumping, running, climbing, swinging, racing, yelling, rolling, hiding, and making a big mess—is what childhood is all about! For a variety of obvious reasons many of these things cannot occur indoors. Yet children must have these important experiences. Today children’s lives are more and more contained and controlled by small apartments; high-stakes academic instruction; schedules; tense, tired, and overworked parents; and by fewer opportunities to be children. Outdoor environments fulfill children’s basic needs for freedom, adventure, experimentation, risk-taking, and just being children (Greenman, 1993).
Children need the opportunity to explore the unknown, the unpredictable, and the adventurous. They also need to be able to wonder at nature, from the worm gliding through the newly turned dirt in the garden to the monarch butterfly emerging out of the chrysalis and gracefully fluttering away in the summer breeze.
In general, physical play should be encouraged by climbing equipment and swings (also in the toddler area), tricycle paths, and large areas of grass and hills on which preschoolers can run and crawl and infants and toddlers can lie, crawl, and roll. Tricycle paths are used for Big Toys, tricycles, scooters, balls, jogging, and wagons. Climbing equipment for infants and toddlers should be very basic, including a crawling tunnel, small steps, and a slide. Because toddlers are very insecure on their feet, special attention should be paid to barriers—the railings and sides of raised equipment. A variety of sloped areas help children learn to adjust their balance on differing surfaces. Although it is important to encourage specific motor skills such as fine and gross motor development, it is more important to support the development of the brain and nerve functions and growth. Thus rolling, crawling, running and climbing, and swinging on swings are all absolutely critical activities for young children.
Research continually shows that constructive play is the preschoolers’ favorite kind of play, probably because they can and do control it (Ihn, 1998). Constructive play is encouraged by using sand and water play, providing a place for art, woodwork and blocks, wheeled toys, and lots of loose objects throughout the playground. Constructive play occurs in sandboxes, in sand and water areas, on flat surfaces, even on grass (Wardle, 1994).
Providing for the outdoor play needs of young children is a complex and challenging task. A variety of factors must be considered, including the various play needs of young children, supervision, safety, and ADA access. However, because our children experience fewer and fewer opportunities to explore nature, run, roll, climb, and swing and because outdoor play is part of being a child, we must find a variety of ways to provide quality outdoor play experiences for children, infants through age eight years. This task is made even more important as our early childhood programs focus more and more on teaching basic skills and early academics.