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Children Are Born To Be Outside and Wild - Not Stuck Inside and Mild
By Amy Sussna Klein

Look around. Do you notice that children aren’t looking as fit as they used to look? Listen to the children. Have you heard “I’m bored” come out of anyone lately? What about the teachers? How well do they really KNOW the children in their classroom? What about society, in general: do we seem relaxed or tense? It may seem impossible that one simple change in how we take care of our children might help across the board with all of these problems.  I assert that the ever-decreasing amount of quality “outside time” has contributed to a host of negative trends.  Making sure that outside activities are viewed as fundamental parts of each child’s day can be an important step in  reversing these trends.

While studies that quantify the decrease in outside time among children are hard to come by, the overall trend has been noted by many authors (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2004) .  Gardner reports, for instance, that parents feel they have hectic schedules, and supervising children outdoors is time-consuming (2006). Parents have fears about the outdoors regarding the sun, strangers, and insects.  Therefore, they feel safer keeping their children inside.  Torgan asks what we hear when we open our windows on a sunny afternoon: The chirping of birds? The voices of playing children? She states that, odds are these days that you will hear the birds but not the children (2002).

The factors that have led to reduced outside time are varied. Technological advancement (air conditioning, television, computer games, etc.) seems to be partly responsible.  Another factor may be the horrifying stories the media broadcasts about abductions of young children from public spaces.  Parents may feel less comfortable about their children playing outdoors than they would about in-home play options (such as the aforementioned computer games or television) or carefully supervised play dates.  Yet another factor may be parents' attempts to renew focus on academic achievement in the classroom, especially due to the increased reliance on standardized tests to measure their child's success. An unintended result of this new focus is that these activities seem to have come at the expense of outdoor activities, including both sports and “play” time.
Adding to the dilemma is a trend among many public school districts throughout the United States to eliminate recess in elementary schools. Those doing away cutting out outdoor activities claim that not only is it a waste of time better spent on academics (as noted above), but that playground injuries promote lawsuits, increase children's' risk of coming in contact with threatening strangers while outdoors, and point to a shortage of teachers and volunteers willing to supervise play activities outside (National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, January, 2006). 

The decrease in outside time is unfortunate.  As we will see, outdoor activities contribute to children’s well-being and development in ways that are not addressed by academic learning.  Time spent outdoors early in life can contribute to characteristics such as physical fitness, appropriate weight, and even appreciation of nature that can stay with the child through a lifetime.  Furthermore, the sacrifice of outside time in an attempt to improve academic results is not only unnecessary, but may even be counterproductive, as time spent outdoors can actually support improved academics in unique ways.

While the societal trends causative to the decline of children’s outdoor time may be irreversible, the good news is that, having recognized the impact of decreasing outside time and its negative consequences, we can do something about it.  Before exploring what can be done about this decrease, it is useful to examine its deleterious consequences

Physical Fitness and Weight Control
According to Brown, Sutterby, and Thornton, the greatest health risk facing children today is not a terrible disease, such as leukemia, or an unthinkable trauma such as sexual abuse (2001). Rather, the biggest concern today is obesity.  Brown, Sutterby, and Thornton show that the pressure on schools to increase test scores has led to decreasing children’s opportunities to participate in recess and physical education (PE) programs and how this has led to an increase in obese and overweight children (2001). They note a serious decline in PE programs since 1990 and connect this with research that has found that children not engaged in a PE program at school gained 1 inch more around the waist, and 2 pounds more overall than those who were involved in a PE curriculum.

Overweight children have problems that go beyond physical appearances.  Dealing with obesity also means dealing with the health status of children.
According to Dimensions (Fall 2005) overweight children are at risk for:

1. Type 2 diabetes
2. Higher-than average blood pressure
3. Higher-than average cholesterol
4. Higher-than average heart rate
5. Higher-than average cardiac output
6. More orthopedic problems
7. Skin disorders
8. Asthma
9. Psychological issues resulting from teasing

A recent report of the Select Committee on Health concluded that most overweight children become overweight or obese adults, and found clear evidence that being overweight greatly increases the risk of several diseases including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Appreciation of Nature and Stress Reduction
Taking the time to appreciate nature is becoming replaced with other activities. For example, the computer as a medium is so compelling that it lures children away from the kind of activities that allow them to discover themselves and their place in the world.  The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE) states, “Our society has become increasingly complex, but there remains a need for every child to feel the sun and wind on his cheek and engage in self-paced play”(January 2006).  We need to “unplug” children and get them outside before they lose the positive aspects of outdoor experiences during these formative years.

Outdoor play is essential for children's health and well-being. The sense of peace and pleasure children experience when they take in fresh air, feel the warmth of the sun on their backs, and watch a butterfly land gently on a flower is immeasurable. (?).Children enjoy running, jumping, climbing, and playing outdoors.

Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin note that there are over 100 studies of outdoor experiences in the wilderness that show natural outdoor environments produce positive physiological and psychological responses in humans, including reduced stress and a general feeling of well-being (2006). Yet, if this human natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be exercised and flourish during the early years of life, the opposite – an aversion to nature – may develop. This aversion ranges from discomfort in natural places to active dislike and disrespect for whatever is not artificial or man-made. The aversion is also evident in the tendency to regard nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.

Outdoor Time Improves Curriculum
Research clearly indicates staying inactive indoors carries great risks. Sometimes, though, outside time is seen as playtime and not as educative as the “real teaching” that takes place in the classroom. In actuality, getting children outside helps to stretch their thinking and challenge them intellectually. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “Children’s attempts to make their way across monkey bars, negotiate the hopscotch course, play jacks, or toss a football require intricate behaviors of planning, balance, and strength—traits we want to encourage in children. Ignoring the developmental functions of unstructured outdoor play denies children the opportunity to expand their imaginations beyond the constraints of the classroom.”

The time children spend outdoors every day is just as important to their learning as the time they spend in the classroom. For teachers, the outdoors offers many ways to enrich the curriculum and support children's development and learning.

What Children Learn Outdoors
When you think about children's time outdoors, it may seem like the teaching of academic content (“real learning”) is not the focus. However, there are many ways to connect with, add to, and extend teaching and learning while outdoors. As you consider the various areas of learning that are important to young children, you will find that there are many ways to promote children's learning outdoors. Here are just a few examples adapted from The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (2002).

Language and Literacy
Expand children's vocabulary and language by asking them to tell you about their explorations outside. Write down what they say for discussion. As children explore outside, there will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions about their observations.  This helps to extend their language.  You may also want to ask them to find something that is huge, slippery, bright, bold, glowing, rough, furry, prickly, and so on, thus providing another opportunity to extend their language.

Promote understanding of books and literacy as a source of enjoyment by including resource books (such as guides to living things). Children can use them to find pictures of what they discover outdoors. Books are a natural connection to the outside.  Why not have a bin of books and a tablecloth (or blanket) to sit on ready to carry outside?

Teach children clapping and jumping games to promote phonological awareness. Have them tune into the sounds and sights around them: how the horn on a car sounds versus the horn on a truck or bus sounds. Listen to sounds around them. Play games or use transition time to try identifying animal sounds.  Jump rope can help children learn about syllables (and extending into variations of jump rope, such as double jumping or alternating patterns, can add to the fun and the learning).
Teach children about letters and words by helping them make traffic signs or providing traffic signs for wheeled toys. Provide clipboards for children to record observations, or bring out paper and writing materials (markers, pencils, etc.) to leave a message for the next group of children.

Teach number concepts by engaging in hands-on activities that allow children to visualize these concepts. For instance, talk about how many unfix cubes are needed to see how tall the plant is. Use numbers and counting in games such as "Hide 'n' Seek," or "London Bridges."  Reinforce one-to-one correspondence by having each child find a partner for an activity or a game such as dancing.
Perhaps have the children set up parachute play.  Will it work if they all choose to run under and no one holds the handles to make it fly?  Or, place small balls on the parachute and have a group of children work together to get the balls to drop through the hole in the middle.  This aids in developing three-dimensional visualization as they work out the challenges that each activity presents.

Encourage children to explore patterns and relationships by noting the patterns on the pavement, bricks, flowers, and leaves. Suggest making a design with the rocks, leaves or shells a child has collected. Play “follow the leader” and have children repeat a movement pattern such as jump, jump, clap, jump, jump, clap, and jump.

Emphasize concepts about geometry and spatial relationships by taking a shape walk to find circles, triangles or rectangles. Provide boxes, tubes, and other containers for children to use in building projects. When children are on the climbing equipment, use words to describe their position in space (e.g., outside, under, over, inside, next to).

Expose children to estimating, data collection, organization, and representation by having them sort and classify the objects they find outdoors, then have them make a graph where they can organize and compare the items in their collections.

Nurture children's interest in measurement and graphing by including string, unfix cubes, yardsticks, and other measuring materials so they can measure the play structure or the distance between structures outdoors. There are so many interesting things to measure outside; ask the children what they want to measure. Having them estimate before they measure will increase their learning. George Forman and Lela Gandini illustrate this in The Long Jump video, a wonderful story about a classroom that needs to use measurement because it is purposeful to them (1991).

Remember that children learn from experimentation with the world. They make predictions, learn from errors, and then try again.  Guide children's development of process skills by posing questions such as: “What would happen if . . . ?”  “How can you find out?” “What did you learn?” Encourage children to be good observers by showing them that you too are interested in finding out what is waiting for you each day outdoors.

Expose children to physical science concepts by offering them a few of the following materials (in various size and shapes): balls, ramps, tubes, water wheels, funnels, and sifters, and by taking an interest in how they use these materials.  Set up water tables or plastic pools so children can explore the properties of water. Once something becomes very familiar to the child, add another item to make it new and stretch their learning possibilities.

Encourage children to take an interest in all forms of life.  They might try putting up bird feeders and keeping them stocked all winter.  Or, they could collect worms and study their eating habits (e.g., they like coffee grounds) and their life cycle (Sussna, 1987).  Bring out a stethoscope so children can listen to their heartbeat before and after running around the yard.

Promote understanding of the earth and environment by learning about trees and plants in your outdoor area and planting a garden with children. Explore shadows: what makes them, how do they move, how long they are, what causes them to grow bigger or smaller?  Encourage children to collect all sorts of rocks and compare and contrast them.

Social Studies
Encourage learning about spaces and geography by talking about spatial relationships when you take a walk (e.g., which is further, the neighborhood park or the post office?); providing paper and markers so children can draw maps and their playground.

Explore concepts related to people and how they live, utilizing what you observe in the play yard or when you take walks. Identify what stores and different types of houses are in your neighborhood, or visit a construction site. (When you see numbers add math in.) Plan a project to clean up litter around the school. Discuss why and how they can help on a daily basis in and out of school.

The Arts
Celebrate growth in dance and music by encouraging children to use their bodies outdoors; bringing music outside so children can dance and move to the different beats. You can also encourage children to move like different animals. (Encourage language as they turn their bodies into various letters.)

Support the visual arts by bringing writing materials outside: paint, crayons, colored chalk, and other art materials. Encourage children to observe carefully and draw what they see. For example, have them look at the clouds in the sky, caterpillars, and flowers (you can relate this activity to the book It Looked like Spilt Milk, 1988),
Promote musical knowledge by having the students “play” playground objects as if they were instruments.  They can run a stick along a fence and hear the rhythm or hit a slide at various points along its length and note how the sounds change.

Increase children's awareness of people and technology by talking about different tools and machines they see and use outdoors (e.g., backhoes, trash trucks, pulleys, phone lines, walkie talkies, pipes and elbows, magnifying glasses, and cameras). Provide technological tools for children to use outdoors such as microscopes, binoculars, pulleys, thermometers, magnifying glasses, cameras, and a digital camera.  One popular activity is to record typical outdoor sounds and then play them back indoors, which gives children an opportunity to gain experience operating a recording device.

Never-Ending  Learning Opportunities from Outdoors Time
From the previous pages you can see that outside is a place that may include many learning activities that we traditionally think of as taking place  inside the classroom. The outside also adds activities to the traditional inside activities repertoire. Too often, children are inside learning about exotic animals and habitats and know nothing about their local environment.

While outdoors, there is more of a chance that the variety of experiences will better attend to all learning styles.  There are many resources to guide teachers.  For curriculum, Creative Curriculum as mentioned previously, The Outside Play and Learning Book by Karen Miller, which offers easy ideas for young children, and the Work Sampling System : A Comprehensive Assessment System by Pearson Early Learning. These are three wonderful sources for teachers to consult in building a strong foundation.

Assessment Opportunities
Creating activities because they were “fun” and “cute” was not a recommendation in the prior section. In fact, if teachers spend a lot of time making “cute stuff, ” they may waste their valuable time and resources (Sussna, 2000).  It takes time to cut out 25 shamrock nametags and get a precious teacher-made bulletin board together.   I suggest using this time to prepare for assessment.  You’ll find the teachers will benefit as much as the students.  First, teachers usually need to talk to parents at least once during the school year. Second, to really be effective, the curriculum should to be connected to some type of assessment. Integrating curriculum with assessment meets the goals to engage, teach, and challenge children to think and reflect. Why keep doing activities if they are unconnected to what the children need, and how the children are progressing?

Assessment is an important tool or process for answering specific questions about various aspects of children’s knowledge, skill, behavior, or personality.  There are two main types of assessment:  on-demand and performance assessment. “On-demand” assessment is typically a one-shot standardized test, in which students perform tasks when asked. These tasks may or may not be familiar to students. This, however, is not the type of assessment addressed in this article.
Performance assessment occurs in the context of child’s activities. This type of assessment shows the child in her natural setting over time. The child’s actual performances are the “data” for the assessment. These samples can include teachers’ observations, photographs of children, and quotes from children that are collected while children are engaged in everyday play activities.

Meisels point out the flexibility that performance assessments can provide regarding learning elements not addressed by standardized tests. There are multiple chances to address this lack in daily curriculum.

Performance assessment showing the child in her natural setting over time  can be done during outdoor activities.  It is more likely that documentation for performance assessment will be collected outdoors if the teacher is prepared. There are two complementary processes of assessment: documentation & evaluation.

The curriculum activities that were mentioned in the previous section CAN  take place outdoors, and they all provide wonderful opportunities for observing a child and documenting what a child is doing. Since teachers are busy with a multitude of tasks, performance assessment needs to be doable. The following are ideas  and shortcuts for capturing  documentation for the assessment.

To Assess Outside, Organize Yourself
Sussna Klein and Simmons Estes (January/February 2004) list ways to make observing doable:
• Decide on what you want to observe, you may want to target a few children each day or all children on a specific skill. So it’s not such an overwhelming task. You’ll be amazed at how quickly data adds up!
• Since memory is a notoriously poor recorder, the first priority is to take notes while you are observing children and organize them as soon as possible after they are recorded.
• Dating children's work helps show how they are progressing. It may be helpful to purchase a date stamp.
Determine what tools you will use to capture your “findings”
What are the actual techniques that teachers use to make collecting information doable?  Remember, it is critical to not only collect observations but to have a system for organizing them.  Every teacher has their preferred methods for collecting and organizing observations, and  you need to find yours.  Dichtelmiller, Jablon, Dorfman, Marsden, & Meisels, S.J. provides teaches with a multitude of ideas in a system called Work Sampling System (WSS) (2001). Work Sampling System (a product of Pearson Early Learning) is a wonderful example of performance assessment that has been organized for teachers working with children from preschool up through 6th grade.

The following are just eight suggestions for tools from the Work Sampling System you may want to use to capture observations while you are outside:

1. Since you will be outside, a clipboard with a pen or pencil tied to it is probably a good start. (Why is a broken yellow crayon the only thing you can find when an outstanding scenario takes place?)  You may want to use a smaller clipboard rather than the traditional size, so that the clipboard does not seem to be a barrier between teacher and child.
2. Many teachers like to wear an apron with pockets where they keep “sticky notes,” note cards, pens, pencils, and other observation tools.  “I can’t imagine teaching without wearing my apron.  Wherever I’m at during the school day, I have what I need readily available to capture observations,” says one expert teacher of young children.
3. “Sticky notes” are a commonly used tool.  These may be kept on your clipboard or apron. (Remember we want it to be easy for the outdoor play.)
4. Mailing labels are another tool used frequently to record observations.  Use at least 1” by 4” labels in order to have enough room to jot down a complete thought.  Typically, sheets of mailing labels are placed on a clipboard and carried with the teacher throughout the day.  As children’s significant actions or words are heard, the teacher writes one per label, including the child’s name and the date.  One way to make sure that you are getting an equal amount of observation per child is to write the name of each child in the class on a label on each sheet.  “I like using the label approach to collecting observations, but unless I pre-wrote each child’s name on a label, I found myself collecting a lot of information on some children and none on others,” reflected a teacher of toddlers.  Sometimes teachers quickly write names down on the sides of the labels. These serve as particularly helpful reminders of children that may have otherwise “fallen through the cracks,” (e.g., children who are unusually quiet or “fine”).
5. Masking tape is sometimes used.  Often, when this is the preferred method, the teacher wears a roll of masking tape on her wrist or (puts a strip down the leg of her jeans) so that it is readily available  to capture an observation.
6. Some teachers like to carry a small notebook (that they may easily stick in a pocket or your apron).
7. File folders are often used as a way to both capture and store observations.  One way to use a folder to capture information is to tape an index card for each child inside of the folder so that each card is overlapping the other.  There is an index card for each child with his/her name written at the bottom of the card.  The teacher carries this file folder throughout the day, writing down observations for each child on the pertinent index card.  At the end of the day, the entire folder can be filed.  Generally one folder will contain enough information for a week.  “What I like about the file folder method is that at the end of a twelve week period of collecting observations, I have twelve index cards filled with observations for each child.”  This is something that often parents can prepare for you at home that also helps them feel a part of the classroom community.
8. Photographs can be an effective tool for collecting observations, particularly those that are visual representations.  For instance, if a child builds an elaborate sand structure, a photograph effectively communicates the breadth of the skills represented by the work sample.  Digital cameras eliminate many problems that result from photos developed at a retail store, such as not being able to remember why you took a picture by the time you get it back, or discovering too late that the photo did not capture what you thought it did.  If you do not have a digital camera, it is especially important to record quick notes with each  photo.
9. A less frequently used, but powerful, observation tool is a tape recorder.  Two different methods are used.  One is to place a tape recorder on a flat surface (e.g., the ledge of the sand area) where children are engaged in an activity so that the recorder captures the conversations that are later transcribed.  Another is for the teacher to carry a hand-held recorder and speak into it as he or she observes.
Find the way that is easiest for you. Try and find something that you can stick (or tape) into the child’s folder later that day because rewriting notes is a tedious task and teachers are always busy!

We need to realize that not going outside is a critical problem for the children in our society today.  Children that do not have a chance for outdoor play are in danger of obesity and it ramifications.  These children are also losing out on the powerful impact of nature appreciation and how it may reduce stress now and for years to come.
Furthermore, outdoor play activities can involve real learning.  A teacher can take any area of her curriculum and adapt it to the outside activities, as they tend to lend themselves to a wider population of children and help connect with what is happening inside. Children with different learning styles need to be noticed and attended to.  As a teacher is planning, she needs to recognize that outdoor activities are worthy of observation and lend themselves to the ongoing cycle of observation:  Curriculum, assessment, evaluation, curriculum.

Performance assessment can happen outside if a teacher is prepared. Pick a documentation tool that works for you. Decide on the first few children you are going to observe and get going. You’ll be amazed at how much data you can  collect in such a short time. In addition, you’ll have your work done for curriculum planning and know your children well enough to write IFSPs, IEPS, and communicate with parents.

Brown, P., Sutterby, J.A., & Thorton, C.D. (November, 2001). Combating childhood obesity with physical play opportunities. Children’s Institute for Learning and Development (CHILD). Austin, Texas.
Dichtelmiller, M.L, Jablon, J.R., Dorfman, A.B., Marsden, D. B. & Meisels, S.J. (2001). Work Sampling in the classroom a teacher’s manual.  Rebus. Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Forman G.E. & Gandini L. (1991) The Long Jump: A video Analyses of small group projects in early education practice in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Performanetic Press, 19, The Hollow, Amherst, MA.
Gardner, M. (June, 2006). Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside.| The Christian Science Monitor
Meisels, S.J. (1993). Remaking classroom assessment with the work sampling system.  Young Children. 48(5): 34-40
Miller, K. (1989). The outside play and learning book. Gyphon House. Beltsville, Maryland.
Shaw, C. G. (1988). It looked like spilt milk. Harpercollins Childrens Books.
Sussna, A.G. (1987). Working with a group of 4-year-olds on a “worm project.” Eliot Pearson Laboratory School Tufts University. Medford, MA.
Sussna Klein, A. G. and Simmons Estes, J. (January/February 2004). Using observation for performance assessment.  Earlychildhood News. 
Sussna, A. G. (April 2000).  A quest to move beyond cute.  Dimensions.
Sussna, A. G. (1995).  The educational impact on preschool teachers of adaptation of the Reggio Emilia documentation process. (UMI No. 9606570)
Torgan, C.  (2002).  Childhood obesity on the rise.
Trister Dodge, D., Colker, L.J., Heroman, T.S. (2002).  The creative curriculum for preschool. Teaching Strategies, Inc., 
White, R.  & Stoecklin, V.  (2006)

Amy Sussna Klein, Ed.D., is a consultant who specializes in early care and education and is President of ASK Education Consulting.  She has also authored numerous articles on curriculum, assessment and environment for young children, published in Earlychildhood News and elsewhere.  She is National Faculty for Pearson Education and has led “Train the Trainer” sessions on Work Sampling System and other training sessions. Her experience with young children spans teaching preschool, teaching graduate level courses to early childhood teachers at a major university, and parenting her own 5-year old daughter. Dr. Sussna Klein can be reached by email at ASKeducation@cs.com.