Outdoor Playing = Outdoor Learning (Association for Learning Environments)
Where does the outdoor environment fit with school learning? Where have we gone wrong? At the expense of play, U.S. public schools have placed significant pressure on students and teachers alike with a pursuit of standardized learning. Most public elementary school principals in the United States have been pressured to minimize recess to none or one daily1 and physical education to 2-3 times weekly in order to capture the maximum number of minutes required by the school district in language arts, math, science and social studies daily. Interestingly, schools have seen an increase in bullying and other social and emotional issues throughout the day in the classroom, hallways and recess areas which inhibit learning. We continue to believe that the cognitive health of our children is much more important than the physical and social/ emotional well-being of our children. This model continues to emphasize technology and standardized learning rather than incorporating innovative and creative, outdoor play environments. Understanding the relationship between movement and learning. Numerous brain activation studies2,3,4 found one or more positive associations between physical activity/recess and indicators of cognitive skills and attitudes, academic behavior and/or academic achievement. Some of these brain activation studies have also shown that children and adolescents who are moving throughout the day allocate more cognitive resources to a task and do so for longer periods of time3,4,5. Furthermore, children pay better attention to their content/ subjects,6,7 are less likely to be disruptive in the classroom8 , feel better about themselves5 , have higher self-esteem, less depression9 and less anxiety when they have been physically active2,9,10. If all of this research is true, then where are the innovative outdoor learning spaces? How often should children be outdoors to explore and play? Play defined. Many researchers around the country believe that play during the school day should be offered at least once daily as an unstructured, outdoor break where the experience is whatever the child wants it to be. It could be role play, physical activity, sitting and reading, socializing, imagining or just reflecting7,10. This is the most important time when children can “regroup” and refocus their energies11. It’s a time that affords children the ability to expand their imaginations and be creative. The Finnish educational system believes that play is the most important part of the school day for this reason. They believe children should be outdoors in an unstructured play environment for 15 minutes every hour. A project called LiiNK (Let’s inspire innovation ‘N kids)12 has been testing this belief by assessing the feasibility of four outdoor, unstructured breaks for play throughout the school day in four Texas public schools. So far, positive results have been very evident from observing children during these outdoor play breaks. If this is working, what should play spaces look like?