Raise your hand if you’ve had this conversation:
“Hey honey, how was school?”
“What was the best part?”
As much as this response makes me want to bang my head against a wall (this is why I’m paying for preschool?), outdoor time may very well be one of the most valuable – and enjoyable – parts of early education.
Recess may typically be viewed as a way for children to blow off steam before returning to the classroom for more rigorous academics. But recent research suggests that for toddlers and preschoolers, it might be key to childhood development.
A study of one- to three-year-old children in Italy compared toddlers in traditional nursery schools and those in outdoor education schools. The study found that over the course of a year, children in the outdoor education group showed more improvement in most developmental areas – cognitive, emotional, social, and fine motor skills – than children in the traditional education group. The authors of the study suggest that outdoor education activities might provide better opportunities for child development than indoor ones.
As much as my preschooler loves his time to pump his legs on the swings and soar down large plastic slides, recent research suggests that natural environments might be a key for optimizing children’s outdoor playtime. An Australian preschool gave children the option between a traditional outdoor play space and a naturalized one and monitored their play in the two different types of areas. The researchers found that children spent more time in sociodramatic play in the natural play space than the traditional one.
Natural play spaces seemed to edge out traditional ones for their use of flexible play spaces, open-ended materials, and greater sense of seclusion and quiet. Researchers found these elements enabled children to better use their imagination and communication skills, leading to more complex sociodramatic play.
Unfortunately, many child cares have not gotten the message about the benefits of outdoor play. A 2015 study found that for nearly 90 percent of the time children are in day care they did not have opportunities for active play. The children in the study, who were attending childcare full time, averaged 48 minutes of play per day.
Outdoor time fared even worse, despite the authors noting that when children were outdoors, their play was much more likely to be active than sedentary. Outdoor time averaged just over half an hour each day – even though all the centers that participated in the study scheduled at least 60 minutes of outdoor playtime into their day.
Leading health organizations have long pushed an increase in activity for children as a way to address the obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children should participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, suggests that two- to five-year-olds might need as much as two or more hours of physical activity each day.
Despite knowing the benefits of outdoor playtime for children, I often find myself dreading the thought of lacing up boots and chasing down rogue mittens as the weather starts to cool off. But once we do get suited up (which is often at least 30 minutes of physical activity in and of itself), we find we all tend to be much happier outside. If nothing else, I am at least happy at the prospect of tired toddlers and a good night’s sleep coming my way.
With as much as we enjoy our family walks outside, I shouldn’t be surprised when my son tells me recess is his favorite part of the day. In fact, children across cultures highly value their outdoor play time according to another recent study. This study interviewed four- to six-year-olds in Canada and Tanzania about what they personally valued at their school. In both research sites, children placed a high importance on their outdoor time, for both its physical and social components.
While I can barely get my son to tell me what letter he practiced writing, he will typically regale me for the entire walk home about how fast he ran from the slide to the swings, who he played pirates with, and other vital playground information. And he might be on to something. His favorite part of the day may very well be the most important, benefiting his cognitive and social development as well as his physical health. Perhaps it’s time that parents and teachers start placing the same importance on recess that children do.