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Adapting Learning Centers for All Children: A Focus on Outdoor Play

How can you make sure your outdoor play area is a safe, exciting, and challenging space for everyone? Consider children's varying abilities as you plan and play together.

Active large-muscle play is best done outdoors. In fact, the NAEYC guidelines recommend that outdoor play take place every day. During !outdoor play, watch individual children to see if they approach play equipment confidently or avoid swings and play equipment that challenge balance. Watch to see if children are able to persist in tasks or become easily fatigued. Note if children interact with others. Use these observations to plan outdoor activities. Monighan-- Nourot, Scales Van Hoorn, and Almy in their book, Looking at Children's Play, describe an interesting process their school went through in looking at their outdoor - play yard. They observed children's play to determine where most self-directed play was occurring. They found that the environment encourages or discourages certain kinds of play; for example, sandbox play and digging encourage communication among children. The teachers involved in the study determined that they wanted to encourage social interaction as well as self-directed gross-motor play, and they structured their playground to encourage the kinds of play they wanted to see.

The Basics

Outdoor equipment that can be rearranged should include ladders, planks, jumping boards, and climbing frames. There should be walking boards of various widths placed at different heights. There should be a variety of balls, from small Ping-Pong balls to large beach balls. Good visibility is important; the teacher should be able to see all the children in the playground to make sure they are safe.

The playground should be covered in a surface that will cushion falls. Inorganic loose material, such as sand, shredded tires, or pea gravel, helps to soften children's falls. This material needs to be eight to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) deep. There should be 75-square feet per child of outdoor space. Active as well as quiet areas, and sunny as well as shady areas, are needed. Before the children play each day, someone needs to check the area for hazards or vandalism. Trees should be pruned to seven feet (two meters) to avoid children getting hurt in branch collisions (Taylor and Morris, 1996).

Encourage families to dress children in clothes that are appropriate for outdoor play, such as pants, sneakers, and easy-to-put-on jackets. Nothing is harder for a child to get on than a coat that is too small and has a zipper that sticks.

Adapting Your Space

Here are suggestions to help children with a variety of abilities to feel welcome and able to participate outdoors.

Developmental Delays Children with developmental disabilities generally need time to play at their current ability levels before attempting more challenging physical activities. For example, if a child prefers playing in the sandbox to playing on the equipment, give her a few weeks to do just that before gently encouraging attempts at unfamiliar tasks. Here are other suggestions:

  • Observe to see whether the child is fearful of swings or other activities that offer movement. Suggest that she try different kinds of swings. One that is low to the ground and has supportive sides might be more acceptable.
  • Keep in mind that sometimes children are initially more comfortable swinging with their feet on the ground and their tummies on the seat of the swing.
  • When teaching swinging, say "Feet out to sky" and "Feet under your seat" (Haldy and Haack, 1995).
  • Encourage the child to develop her strength through climbing activities, always supervised by a nearby adult.
  • Work on following directions in gross-motor tasks.
  • If the child seems to always gravitate to one piece of playground equipment, gently encourage attempts at new gross-motor experiences.
  • Play basic games such as hiding some toys on the playground and encouraging children to run and find them all.
  • With an adult nearby, encourage the child to climb on Large rocks (Haldy and Haack,1995 ) and to practice running up and down small hills.
  • Try to have the child sustain running gradually for longer periods of time.
  • There are lots of snow activities that make it worthwhile to bundle up and play outside during the winter: angels in the snow, snowman-making, spraying food color on snow, or being pulled on a sled are a few examples of fun experiences for snowy days.
  • Incorporate community walks into your curriculum. Not only will the walking improve each child's endurance, but it will also help them absorb lots of information about their environment.

Orthopedic Impairments Outdoor play may well be the hardest activity to adapt for children with orthopedic impairments. Adaptations can be expensive, and programs often conduct fund-raisers to get adaptive equipment far outdoor use. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Children in wheelchairs need some adapted playground equipment such as a wheelchair swing or wheelchair-accessible sand table.
  • Observe the child's positioning on swings or in the sandbox to ensure he is not involved in abnormal movement patterns.
  • Find one skill or activity to work on that will allow the child to play with other children, such as hitting a ball suspended by a string from a tree limb or swing. Make sure that the child's efforts result in a skill he can use functionally on the playground.
  • A child in a wheelchair can work on improving range of motion while pretending to paint any reachable surface with water and a paintbrush.
  • You can purchase a soft cloth catcher's mitt and ball with Velcro strips. (The ball sticks to the catcher's mitt, making it easier to catch.)
  • Although it might be difficult for the child to go down a slide, he can independently roll toys down the slide to another child, who can catch the toy and return it to him.
  • You can adapt tricycles and other wheeled equipment by, for example, building up the pedals with wood blocks. Secure the child's feet to the pedals using Velcro straps.
  • Modifying Simon Says to involve imitation of hand and arm movements can be fun for children with orthopedic impairments.
  • Modify bowling games so that the child rolls the ball down a bowling ramp. This piece of equipment can be found in catalogs such as Sportime Abilitations.
  • Throwing at a target is good for eye-hand coordination and range of motion. You can adapt the target in a number of ways, such as making it larger and/or positioning it closer to the child.

Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD) and Autism Often free play on gross-motor equipment in the playground is a very enjoyable time for the child with PDD. Encourage each child to try a variety of movement experiences. You can also:

  • Slowly push the child on a swing and pair the movements with a simple song to encourage language skills.
  • If the child seems to be getting over-stimulated, settle her down on a blanket in a comfortable spot and rub her back while speaking in a calm, soft voice.
  • Teach skills for the sandbox that include interacting with other children.
  • Incorporate sensory activities into children's outdoor-- play experiences.
  • Have the child take her shoes off to make footprints in the sandbox. Compare the size of the child's footprint with your own. Add water to sand to make drip castles (Granovetter and James, 1989).
  • Ask yourself: Is the child trying a variety of playground equipment or sticking with one favorite such as the swing? Make sure you allow plenty of time for the child to experience preferred activities, but gently encourage her to try a variety of movement experiences. The child may be fearful of some equipment, such as the slide. Break sliding into small steps, allowing the child to first just touch the slide, followed by going up a step or two, and then coming down. Some children may be gravitationally insecure.
  • Remember, for children with gravitational insecurity, playing on equipment that involves having their feet leave the ground is very frightening. These children will benefit from controlled movement input in a straight line, such as slowly swinging back and forth. (It is best if the child can control the movement by dragging her feet on the ground to slow the swinging if it becomes too stimulating.)
  • Teach peer models to approach the child with PDD, take her hand, and include her in activities such as play in the sandbox.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)/Behavioral Problems Children with ADHD often love to run and play outside. The concern is that their high levels of activity and impulsivity might put them (and other children on the play area, or even adults) in danger. Therefore, close supervision and firm guidelines are very important. Consider the following:

  • A child with ADHD may need one-to-one supervision on the playground when he first enters your program. Phase out this support when the child seems to have learned the rules and developed some routines of constructive play.
  • If you have the opportunity to buy playground equipment or make changes to your playground, avoid tall slides or other high climbing equipment.
  • The child may benefit from calming activities when he first enters the playground and before returning to the classroom. For example, have the child swing slowly back and forth when he first gets out on the playground and just before the outdoor session is over.
  • Weighted vests can be calming for children and fit nicely under the child's jacket. Use a lighter weight in the vest pockets so the child does not become exhausted during active play.
  • Bring a book or a child's favorite toy outside so he can sit and play quietly if he becomes over-stimulated.
  • Repeat playground rules often and notice when the child is following the rule so that you can offer positive reinforcement.
  • Actively instruct the child in simple games such as hide-and-seek or things to do in the sandbox. Children play more constructively when they know what to do with another child.

Motor-Planning Problems This is the child who may stick to one or two familiar activities and need encouragement to try unfamiliar large-muscle experiences. This child may also have planning and coordination problems with familiar activities, so you may need to break down playground experiences into small steps. For example, if the child is uncomfortable with swinging, just sitting on the swing without moving might be a comfortable initial step. In addition:

  • Experiment with a variety of types of balls and ball sizes. Some children may find it easier to catch a Koosh ball, beanbag, or a larger, textured hall.
  • Have a small portable basketball hoop on the playground for target practice.
  • Use hula hoops for jumping practice.
  • Invite another child to demonstrate the gross-motor activity before the child with motor-planning difficulties attempts the task.
  • Draw trails on the pavement with sidewalk chalk for children to walk along or follow while riding bikes.
  • Give the child easy-to-remember strategies such as "Ready, set, throw!" to help her organize during large- muscle activities.
  • If the child is having difficulty with a motor activity, tell the physical or occupational therapist. The child can practice the skill with the therapist and then use it during playground time.

Visual Impairments Any child is anxious when confronted with unfamiliar large-muscle activities, but the child with visual impairments has much to fear as she moves through the playground for the first time. She will need an adult nearby to introduce the different pieces of equipment, explain what they are used for, and help her explore movement experiences at her own pace. Often, young children with visual impairments choose "safe" activities that do not involve movement or exploration. They need an adult to provide access to playground experiences, encourage them to explore, and help them interpret the experiences positively (Davidson and Nesker Simmons,1992). As you work with children, remember:

  • Don't take the child's hand and lead her around the playground. Teach the child to hold onto your finger while walking beside you. When the child is older and taller, she can hold onto your elbow. This sighted-guide procedure helps the child gain a sense of independence when walking (Kastein, Spaulding, and Scharf, 1980).
  • When reaching a child with visual impairments to roller skate, put one skate on the child so that she is able to experience skating movements with one foot while keeping her other foot on the ground (Kastein, Spaulding, and Scharf,1980).
  • The child can use a rope strung from one point to another to guide her independent movements around the playground. Be careful the rope does not cut across the path of running children.
  • Make sure the child is wearing sneakers on the playground:

During gross-motor experiences, it is important not to do too much for children with special needs and to remember that all children need opportunities to figure out how to get their bodies to do what they want them to do, to problem-solve, and to make choices.

Adapted with permission from The Inclusive Early Childhood Classroom by Path Gould and Joyce Sullivan, Gryphon House, Inc., PO Box 207, Beltsville, MD 20704-0207; 800-638-0928.

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