Early Childhood Today: Besides the obvious benefits of exercise, what else do young children gain from outdoor play?
Eric Strickland, Ph.D.: Young children have more opportunities for extensive gross-motor movement outdoors-with lots of vigor and lots of noise!-as well as for social, physical, and cognitive development as they act on their environment and see what kinds of outcomes their physical actions produce. There are also opportunities for emotional development as children test their limits and challenge themselves to try things that may be just at the edge of their reach. Their success leads to feelings of accomplishment and positive self-esteem.
ECT: Why don't we allow children to spend more time outdoors?
Strickland: I think part of the problem is the belief that being inside offers more opportunity for "academic" learning. The thinking here is that children can learn more inside, and that isn't the case. You can have story time outside, block play, small- and large-manipulative play, and so on. It doesn't make sense to separate outdoor time from indoor time and treat one as learning time and one as play time. We build indoor curriculum around playful interaction with equipment and materials. We can do this in the outdoor environment just as easily-- perhaps better because we're exposing children to sunshine, fresh air, and a richer textural world.
ECT: Do young children behave differently with each other when they're outdoors?
Strickland: Boys tend to engage in more sociodramatic play outdoors than indoors. That's a wonderful vehicle for developing an understanding of social norms and behaviors and for children to develop both creative and expressive language. The outdoor environment also allows boys who are more physical to assume leadership roles and perhaps get more positive affirmation than they do inside. When girls engage in dramatic play outdoors, they tend to take on more assertive roles and their socio-dramatic play tends to be more physically expressive. We're not trying to homogenize boys and girls, but we do want to encourage in every child a full-range of natural expression.
ECT: What are the most important milestones in gross-motor development in the early years?
Strickland: Children are developing their sense of balance, coordination, strength, and agility. Let's look at children as individuals. We want each child, at whatever developmental stage, to have enough strength to do the tasks that he is attempting to do, whether he's a 12-month-old who's starting to walk or a 4-year-old who's trying to use an overhead ladder. We need to look at those internally driven tasks that children are trying to do and find ways to support and encourage those skills as they emerge.
ECT: Can you tell our readers specifically what they can do to make sure those skills are developed?
Strickland: We need to be sure our outdoor environments support gross-motor development and encourage children to take the next steps. Teachers need to affirm what children do accomplish with positive comments. All of this calls for sensitive observation of children at play and a strong understanding of general developmental principles.
ECT: What other reminders can you give us about outdoor play for our readers?
Strickland: You know, in our country we still lack faith in children's own developmental timetables. There are children who are really good at play and pretending and digging in the sand. And whether we, as adults, recognize it or not, they are right on schedule developmentally. These children may not be ready for formal or "academic" schooling, but they are really good at learning-they just need to learn in different ways. Remember, there really is a push for development within every child, and that push propels children forward in life. We must find ways to support that forward motion while recognizing and respecting individual differences.
Eric Strickland, Ph.D., is a former early childhood teacher, director, and associate professor of elementary and early childhood education. He is founder and president of Grounds for Play.