MAKING THE MOST OF OUTDOOR
As I write this, snow is on the ground and the temperature is below
freezing. However, the days are increasingly longer, a sure sign that
spring will soon be here. By the time you read this, you and the children
you care for will like nothing better than spending many hours outside.
Being outside, including on playgrounds, provides opportunities for
children to actively expand and create play environments. When children
are happily engaged with a variety of interesting and complex materials,
caregivers are able to observe and direct their attention to individuals
and small groups of children. However, when there is a scarcity of play
materials, "caregivers will need to be actively involved and provide
The materials young children find most involving are those which can be
manipulated or stimulate improvisation. We know what they are: water, mud,
sand, and the various related equipment; art materials; vehicles; swings;
moveable climbing boards, boxes, crates, hollow blocks, and other
construction materials; dress up clothes and props.
A major part of the exhilaration of outside play is the sense of freedom
to be and do according to one's own choices ... to follow your own path,
or a friend's path, or know that you could if you cared to. These are
known as the senses of autonomy and initiative.
Opportunities for such developmentally stimulating behaviors can be
extended by empty spaces where children can create play by bringing in
materials. When caregivers provide empty play areas, they extend the
opportunities for children to make decisions with play materials,
determining the context and the environment.
Thus, a small empty table outside could be used by one group of children
as a spot for a domino tournament, another time as the housing for a pay
phone, and still another as an airport on top of a mountain. By providing
a mixture of both developed play areas (where the caregiver determines the
focus of the children's play) and empty spaces and access to interesting
play materials, children are able to engage in a range of developmentally
My own view of the ideal playground is that
of an empty stage - a space with only the barest of fixed equipment, but a
space which stimulates children's use of all aspects of
themselves-physical bodies, social skills, creative powers, thinking
abilities, feelings, and self-concepts. The open space can be exploited
and filled with children's movements. The stage can also be used for
unending creations of varied settings through the use of materials, props,
and even costume pieces, supporting children's imaginative and social
This concept of a playground requires adults or caregivers who can provide
and maintain a wide variety of simple objects. These objects can be
combined and reconfigured by the children in many ways to create more
complex settings which stimulate and support more complex thinking and
behaviors. This requires caregivers who view outdoor play as important as
indoor activities, and who will closely observe children. Your eyes can
not only prevent an injury, but also see ways and opportunities to extend
children's play and by so doing, extend children's learning development.
Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care -
NNCC. Self, F. (1996). Making the most of outdoor play. In Todd, C.M.
(Ed.), *Child care center connections*, 5(3), Urbana-Champaign, IL:
University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.