Eric Strickland, PhD: What Children Learn Through Outdoor Play
- Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K
To encourage problem solving, outdoor areas should offer children opportunities to make changes in the environment - objects that are portable, that move. What are those things? First and foremost, sand and water, preferably situated so children can combine them. And, materials that allow children to build and construct, such as blocks, boxes, planks, and small tires, also lead naturally to solving problems.
If you already have a sandbox, it's easy to add movable elements. Not just the traditional shovels and pails, but short sections of plastic pipe, interesting plastic containers and blocks, straws, and small pieces of poster board. If your sandbox is too small for a variety of materials, divide children into groups and move some of the materials into a shaded area where children can play and explore. You can also start by bringing cardboard boxes outside. Check to see when your local grocery store has delivery days and look for a variety of sizes. Children can contribute shoeboxes from home. Then, with a large number of boxes, all you really need is to create the space and encourage children to see what they can build.
On the Move
When children use the smaller elements mentioned above to solve problems-such as attempting to balance structures so they stand - they practice eye-hand and fine-motor coordination. When they play with outdoor stacking boxes and other building materials, there are countless opportunities to lift, carry, and work together. Children engage their bodies as they move, lean forward, reach, and climb. Let's say that during children's play, a problem comes up - How can we lift something that is bigger than we are? As they work out strategies - sliding something cooperatively, leaving the object in place and bringing other objects to build around it - their bodies become working, valuable tools.
Play Spaces for All Children
Look at the accessibility of your playground. Make sure there are pathways, ramps, and hard surfaces so children in wheelchairs and walkers can get to the areas where other children are playing. Design equipment so children with special needs can use loose materials-an elevated sandbox and water table allows children with special needs to play. Aim for corners on those tables where a wheelchair can easily fit. Then, just supply the same kinds of props. If it's not possible to have special equipment, make sure children's wheelchairs are equipped so loose materials can be placed on trays.
One of the biggest problem-solving situations outdoors is conflict over using items, whose turn it is. Often adults are too quick to intervene. We need to let children go through the process of learning to solve the problem themselves. Obviously, if one child is going to hit another child, we need to intervene. However, most preschool-age arguments last about 30 seconds. If we pause and observe, letting the situation run its course, children most often will find a way to solve their problem and so gain experience and confidence in that important process.
Advice for Parents
Recognize that children are going to work hardest to solve the problems that have meaning to them. If we can give children open-ended materials - boards, piles of dirt, safe building materials, boxes - and let them direct what they want to do, there will be greater opportunities for them to engage in problem-solving processes that transfer to other situations. These kinds of experiences build children's confidence in their ability to solve problems.