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By Mike Godfrey
I sure hope Mother’s Day is beautiful this year! I hope the sun is shining, the grass is green, and we have some warm weather. But even if we don’t, I’ll bet it is still beautiful—a perfect day for going outside. Mothers and girls—fathers and boys too—of all ages benefit from daily outdoor play. It stimulates the senses and helps build imaginations. The many sights, sounds, smells, and textures outdoors combine to make a rich tapestry that can’t be duplicated. Compared to indoor play, preschoolers engage in more complex play outside and most children extend the play for longer periods of time, explore deeper themes, and develop a greater sense of wonder.
So in this age of declining recess and more exciting video games, how can we encourage playing outdoors? Barbara Crossley, Beverlie Dietze, and several others have a few ideas:
First,have a great attitude! We must not let the outdoors keep us indoors. In Scandinavia they say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. In the winter I heard adults say, “It’s too cold to go outdoors.” Now that it is almost summer I hear, “But it will be too hot!” If the weather keeps us indoors too often, we and our children miss important opportunities. How else can we learn about rain, or wind, or sun, or snow? Instead of running to the window to see the rainbow, it’s great to discover the rainbow! Seeing the garter snake slither on TV is not nearly as adventurous as watching it in real life.
Keep it healthy and safe. Nationwide at least 44% ofthe injuries requiring hospitalization occur on playgrounds because of inadequate supervision. Making sure the equipment is safe is also a key, even on public playgrounds. Obviously, we need to take the necessary precautions; supervision, safe equipment, sunscreen and appropriate clothing come to mind, but part of being outdoors is taking risks and exploring. The adult’s role is not to lead the play, but perhaps be part of the play. Let the youngster be in charge in the absence of danger. If they are having trouble finding something to do, create an activity with them.
Giveoutdoor play enough time so people can engage in complex, integrated, in-depth activities or explorations. And it may be something that is worth revisiting the next day. Personally, I was a play-in-the-dirt-with-trucks kid myself. My mother would let us play for hours at a time, and when my brother and I came back the next day, we would pick upright where we left off. Once, my older brother told us there was gold hidden in a rock under the garden. We were to “mine” it with our toys until we foundit. My brother and I dug for days and finally had about a 2 foot hole in our garden. After we found our “gold,” a common cobblestone rock, we were rich and spent the next several weeks “spending” our riches. My older brother later told us he did not know where the rock was but he knew we would get to it sooner or later, we lived in Idaho.
Oneof the best parts of being outdoors is the ability to make anything something else. Like Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, we can make the outdoors a terribly exciting place. All it takes is a space, a fewprops, and time. The props may be something found—a stick, some straw, perhaps even a ball. The best props are open-ended, that is they do not have a defined purpose that limits their play. For example, a stick is a staff, a goal post,the finish line, a shield, a wall, a baby, the list is as limitless as the imagination!
If it is a good day weather-wise take a few, or more, indoor things outside. You can also take a few outdoor things inside. Write a story about that spider and where it is going. Draw a picture of grass growing. How would your child design that playhouse? Examine that bulb closely under the lights.
An added benefit is the exercise. The outdoor space especially demands activity from children. Since childhood obesity has reached epidemic levels, spending some time outdoors may help curb the disturbing trend. It has also been shown that boys especially need to spend time outdoors to help them academically. It may seem counter-intuitive, but studying all the time does not raise test scores—but a balance of studying and physical exercise does, especially play outdoors.
Now that I’ve got all these things, I think I’d better take my children outside to play. What a better gift for mother’s day than happy, healthy children—whether the weather cooperates or not.
Mike Godfrey is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho