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Maximizing Outdoor Play: Moving Interest Centers Outdoors
By Nancy P. Alexander

Early childhood teachers often spend outdoor time enforcing restrictions against standing up in swings, fighting, or sliding head first down the slide. The underlying assumption in such situations is that outdoor time is a break from learning; a time for children to exert physical energy in order to return to the more valuable activities in the classroom. What a misuse of children's valuable time! Indeed, a playground gives children freedom to be physically active, but the playground can also be an outdoor learning laboratory with numerous exciting and challenging activities.

When outdoors, children can observe nature, hang bird feeders, plant radishes, search for cicada shells, or watch the communal, determined behavior of ants transporting food. They can develop interpersonal skills of problem-solving and conflict resolution in small or large groups involved in dramatic play and explore the arts in a way not available indoors. Even dramatic play takes on new aspects in the outdoors.

Developing Outdoor Learning Environments
Most everything that goes on indoors can go on outdoors as well. In fact, moving an existing indoor activity to the outdoors can revitalize it, opening up new possibilities for stimulating children's imagination in the new environment. For example, a dress-up area can easily be set up on the playground. In a child care program or private preschool setting with a protected play area, simply keep a collection of dress-up clothing wherever other outdoor equipment is stored. Art supplies and even manipulatives can supplement outdoor play equipment to offer more choices to children. Blocks, too, work great outdoors and open up exciting new possibilities for imaginative use.

By effectively using the outdoor environment you can provide a stimulating resource for learning, not a recessfromlearning. So, how do we begin to transform outdoor time into a 'learning laboratory' ? How do we make maximum use of the outdoors? Here is how to get started.

Many art activities such as easel painting, finger painting, and molding playdough or clay are as much fun outdoors as indoors. Additionally, there is the distinct advantage of not worrying about messiness. The easel you are not using inside the classroom because of spilled-paint-on-the-new-carpet fears can be taken to the playground where an occasionally spill becomes insignificant. If a spare easel isn t available, attach a piece of cardboard to the fence and use it as a backing for painting. A chain-link fence is a perfect place to hang paintings to dry or you can put up a clothesline instead.

Moving a table outside makes finger-painting a fun and mess free activity. You can clean the table simply by washing it down with a water hose when the children are finished. And in the summer, the children can wear their swimsuits and be cleaned with the water hose themselves.

Playdough and clay can also be taken to the playground and used on trays. Simply use cinder blocks and a plank to make a table and provide children with work space if you do not have an outdoor table.

Large blocks, discarded milk crates, and planks provide children with opportunities to experiment with larger block construction than typically possible with unit blocks. However, even unit blocks can be brought outside and used on pavement, a deck, or a flat ground surface covered with a sheet of vinyl flooring. Consider keeping an old set in outdoor storage for use on the playground.

Storing the unit blocks in milk crates expedites transportation. Just limit the amount in each container to prevent the crates from being too heavy for children to help in carrying them.

Dramatic Play
Even a housekeeping area can be constructed outside. Cardboard boxes or an old stove-sink-refrigerator set can be moved outdoors periodically. Children can pretend to cook with all the natural materials around them - leaves, pinecones, sticks - if you keep some small pots and pans in a dishpan for taking outdoors.
Some dress-up items tend to stimulate more active, noisy, or aggressive play than is usually desirable indoors. Articles such as boots, western wear, superhero, or circus accessories may be used outdoors with fewer limitations than would be necessary indoors. Since children's outdoor play is generally more active and dirtier than indoor play, outdoor dress-up materials should be sturdier to withstand frequent washings.

Capes, for example, are particularly effective outdoor dress-up items and can be quickly made from a rectangle of fabric. Using the selvages as the sides, gather one end and cover with a strip of wide bias tape to finish the neckline. Attach Velcro to enable children to put on and remove the cape easily without help. Hem the bottom and the cape is ready for use. A fake fur cape becomes an animal costume; nylon net or other sheer fabric creates a bride or princess; black cotton allows children to be a witch or a magician. And the inevitable superhero play will result from capes of plain or printed fabrics.

For safety, never allow children to use climbing equipment while wearing dress-up clothing. Select a location for the dress-up interest center well away from climbing equipment to reduce the temptation to combine the two activities. Always avoid long dresses that might induce a fall since children tend to be more active outdoors.

To keep the dress-up items reasonably clean, teach children to return them to the open suitcase or basket when they are not being worn. Setting up an outdoor dress-up area is so easy, effective, and fun you will wonder why you have not done it before!

What about Storage?
In a facility without outside storage, dress-up items may be transported from the classroom. A small trunk or suitcase filled with dress-up clothes can be carried outdoors, quickly placed in an accessible location on the playground, then opened to display items to attract children's attention. A laundry basket or a large metal basket from a chest freezer also work well as containers for small items. In selecting containers, be sure they are large enough to hold a variety of interesting articles and lightweight, enabling children to carry them to and from the storage area or classroom.

Wagons can be used to transport blocks, manipulatives, and even books from the classroom or storage area to the outdoors. Children love helping pull a wagon loaded with materials they want to use. Pillowcases, especially king-size ones, can be filled with balls and carried out by the children. Children love carrying a pillowcase or a mesh bag like a 'Santa sack'.

Consider the Benefits
Almost any activity that can go on indoors can also take place outdoors. Use your imagination and see what other materials you can move outdoors. Undeniably, it requires effort to carry materials outdoors regularly, but there are multitudes of benefits for the children and teachers alike. Teachers time spent providing a variety of activities outdoors will be returned fourfold through a reduction in discipline problems. Happy, occupied children, challenged by the equipment and interesting materials available, are far less likely to seek challenges in undesirable, aggressive, or unsafe ways.

Nancy P. Alexander is Executive Director of Northwestern State University Child and Family Network, in Shreveport, Louisiana. She conducts numerous workshops and training sessions throughout Louisiana and at national and regional conferences. She is a frequent contributor of articles and photographs to early childhood publications. Her book, Early Childhood Workshops that Work: The Essential Guide to Successful Training and Workshops, is available from Gryphon House, www.ghbooks.com.