Problem Solving Through Outdoor Play

By Mary S. Rivkin PhD
  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Safety and Outdoor Play

It's springtime! Now is the time to enjoy the outdoors as an environment for your curriculum. Problem solving is one curriculum area that offers exciting possibilities when you take full advantage of your outdoor space.

Why "Problem Solving"?

The term "problem solving" sometimes sounds like a math activity ("Here are three buckets, how many shovels do we need?") or a way to get through a difficult situation ("What are we going to do about the balls going over the fence?"). It can also be seen as a way to help children develop cognitive skills ("How many blocks do we need to make this tower as tall as that one?") or a way to simply have fun ("Where can we hide so they can't find us?"). Problem solving, however is all of this and more. It is a basic, ongoing human activity.

The reason "problem solving" has such a shining reputation among educators is that, unlike some things we want children to do (buckle seatbelts, keep holly berries out of their noses, listen to others when they're itching to share their own ideas), children enjoy, and are engaged by, problem solving. A good problem engages their minds and energizes their bodies, the process often leading to further engagement, increased knowledge, and higher self-esteem ("I figured it out! I can do it").

What's a good problem? One that children have a chance to solve because they know enough to begin attacking it, and, equally important, that they have enough interest in to even try it. Children solve most of their own problems because they are born with the capacity, and need, to problem-solve. Teachers, however, with an eye to enhancing learning, offering challenging experiences, and making the day enjoyable for all, can provide situations and encouragement for this capacity to develop.

Lead the Way

Sometimes we can directly challenge a child to solve a problem: "See if you can make your shadow taller." However, few children or adults like to constantly be challenged by another person. These direct challenges can become tiresome and interfere with one's own agenda. Instead, let's try to find circumstances that children might enjoy wrestling with. Then, reach for an opening to engage the child. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Work with materials yourself, perhaps talking aloud as you handle them. "Hmm, wonder if these marigolds should get planted here in front, or maybe over here ... Let me experiment a bit." Such modeling invites imitation and collaboration from a child.
  • Deliberate about a situation in the presence of children. "You know, I was wondering about these wood chips getting spread around so much. Maybe someone will have an idea on how they can stay under the climber so people don't get hurt when they fall." This hopeful statement opens the opportunity for problem solving without demanding it.
  • Tell stories in which the characters confront a situation that has some relevance to the children. Invite children to speculate about how things will turn out.
  • Directly ask a child to perform a useful task, such as putting all the sand toys back in their box, and then showing the child your appreciation. The really big problem of being acknowledged for a good deed contains the smaller but interesting, problem of making all the toys fit into one container.

Let Children Lead

Children's own interests provide springboards for problem solving. What are the children working on, playing with, talking about? The observant teacher notes these things for immediate or future development. Here is an example:

Watching the children kick the leaves in October the teacher writes a quick note to buy five little rakes after school and to search the Internet for information on how to compost. She surveys the art cabinet for leaf printing supplies. She thinks: Maybe Chris, who is so good at shapes, would like to match up some of these leaves with the tree field guide. Now, on their hands and knees, Ryan and Madison are vigorously shoving leaves together-"We're making a mountain, then we're going to jump in it!" Nodding at them enthusiastically, the teacher continues her planning and notices a tug on her jacket. It's Tally, wandering as usual, looking for something to do, someone to play with. The teacher says, "Hi, Tally. Wonder if Ryan and Madison need a hand with their mountain?"

In this situation, we observe children's interest, make plans to extend it with additional supplies, support the children's self-chosen challenge of mountain-making, and enable a solution for what the child sees as the problem of nothing-to-do, no-one-to-do-it-with, common with children just learning to work in groups.

Ask Leading Questions

Later, this same teacher sees Crystal tentatively perched at the top of the slide, a look of fear on her face. She asks, "What are you thinking about, Crystal?" Crystal explains that she's afraid that when she goes down the slide, she will fall on the ground and hurt her bottom. "Is there a way you can go down the slide without that happening?" the teacher asks. Several minutes later, Crystal figures out that she can come down feet first on her tummy and feel very, very safe. By asking Crystal what she thinks, and talking it over, the teacher facilitates Crystal's problem-solving ability. Crystal has fun rather than fearing hurt.

The playground offers endless opportunities for openended questions that help children think through problems. "How many ways are there to get to the top of this climber?" "Terry, can you think of a new way to get up there?" "What's a fast way to get through the obstacle course?" "How many hops can 4year-olds do?" These questions are "authentic" because no one actually knows the answers to them. Connected to some observed or anticipated interest on the part of the children, they are worth thinking about. They catch the corners of the child's mind, quite unlike the closed question, "What color is this leaf?"

Solving problems is an enormously satisfying experience for children. Creating psychological openings, observing and following through on children's interests, and posing open-ended questions are important strategies for encouraging children to engage in this fundamental process.

To investigate the safety of your own outdoor play space, ask yourself:

  • Are there any protrusions to poke children, splintery surfaces, or spaces where heads and/or bodies could get entrapped?
  • Are there resilient surfaces for landing from slides and falls and lumps from climbers? Chips, sand, pea gravel, or rubber are required, with the "fall zone" extending at least 6' beyond the edge of the equipment. The Consumer Product Safety Commission specifies the depth needed for each material,
  • Is the equipment in good condition? Are there broken swings, cracked plastic slides, or loose railings?
  • Are platforms guarded with railings?
  • Are the wheel toys high quality? Are there tiny, tippy wagons or trikes that tumble when turned too sharply?
  • Are there enough pieces of equipment and activities for everyone? When children have to compete with one another for the chance to play, safety decreases.

A safe playground layout:

  • Is easily supervised. Fences and other boundary markers give children and adults a sense of safety from children's wandering and from intruding people and animals. Supervising adults should have clear sight lines for the entire play area.
  • Has paths for walking and running that are a safe distance away from swings.
  • Has easy access to water so that equipment can be kept clean.
  • Has drainage set to carry water away from the playspace so that it doesn't become a sheet of ice in cold weather.
  • Has shade for the warm season and sun for the cold.
  • Contains only safe plants (no poisonous plants, no barbs) but doesn't exclude grasses and shrubs that give children some hiding places, especially in a fenced yard. Children do need to get away from one another at times and have privacy.
  • Has a cover for the sand area to prevent animals from soiling it.
  • Has easy access to water so that equipment can be kept clean.

Safe behaviors for children include:

  • Wearing sunscreen.
  • Wearing sweatshirts and jackets without drawstrings to guard against catching them on equipment.
  • Wearing bike helmets only when riding bikes/trikes. Accidents have happened when helmets were caught on climbing equipment.
  • Having a clear understanding of boundaries when playing in unfenced areas. Establish these by using cones, geographic features such as trees, and walking the boundaries with children. Teach children to respond-to a signal for regrouping.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart How Children Problem Solve (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles, Outdoor Activities and Recreation, Logic and Problem Solving, Communication and Language Development, Spring, Pride and Self-Esteem, Learning and Cognitive Development, Physical Development
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