I'VE SPENT MOST OF TODAY, SUNDAY, WITH MY TWO preschool children. They dug in the sand, played in the water, made a dam, rode bikes, pushed a wheeled toy, threw a ball, played 101 Dalmatians, turned cartwheels (my daughter put her hands on the ground and looked back through her legs - stage one of a somersault!), swung on the swings, chased each other, read two books, played with toy cars, went for a wild ride in the shopping cart, talked, sang, and danced! All this, plus the normal daily routine, happened in the space of about six hours.
It takes time for good play to happen, and when we don't allow for that time, we interfere with development and learning. Look back through the list of my children's activities. What learning outcomes do you see? Which would you be willing to give up, willing to count as noncontributory to development, to learning, to language, to fun?
One of the things early childhood practitioners have come to understand and to fiercely defend is the notion that development takes time. We also know that play is a cornerstone of development - most of what young children learn, they learn through play and playful interaction with their environments and the people in them. Time for play is critical - children have to have an adequate amount of time for play. Unfortunately, the recent trend toward reducing or, worse yet, removing free play or recess from the early childhood curriculum puts children at risk. Children may not only miss the opportunity to develop meaningful play, in which themes abound and language supports the elaboration of those themes; they may also miss the opportunity for play to contribute to physical development in a fundamental way. Cardiovascular fitness requires sustained activity. Fifteen minutes once a day is simply not enough physical-activity time for young children! It is important to look for ways to incorporate opportunities for physical play into your daily routine.
Observe Play Styles
When you watch young children as they enter the play environment, you'll notice a variety of styles of engagement. Some children rush headlong for the swings; others systematically sample various play options; still others seem to wander aimlessly through the play space before finally settling into an activity. All of these approaches are acceptable and probably reflect a particular learning style or perhaps the mood of the day. Whatever the case may be, what children start with during play is not always what they end with - assuming they have time to try different options before they settle into an activity.
Preschoolers and kindergartners need time to sample, to consider their options, and to move into play settings, building up slowly to sustained activity that is usually focused on thematic play. When preschoolers and kindergartners are given 15 minutes, they barely begin to get under way, either in physical activity or thematic play. Children in these age groups may also need more control over when they play. Can you schedule your staffing to allow children to choose outdoor play as they need it, rather than as a predetermined "one time fits all" occasion? When my colleagues and I did this at the Auburn University at Montgomery Child Development Center, we trusted the children to plan their own time in a well-designed space. And, generally, it worked! They regulated their time well, spending some time indoors and some in the great outdoors.