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Why Children Need to be Outside at School


Children just need to be outside to let off steam, right? Should we see the playground as a break from learning, or as part of our planned classroom? From the children's perspective, whether we recognize it or not, the playground is most definitely part of the learning environment.

The playground offers a variety of activities and areas to stimulate balanced physical growth and development: organized games of ball play, climbing, running, rolling, full body digging, domestic sand play, and kinesthetic/vestibular play. Outside play includes running from danger and collecting artifacts from nature. Vivid negotiations over turf occur. Shrill oscillating-toned cries signal entrance to the playground and availability for play. Feigned swoons leave children motionless amidst the fast moving agenda. Some watch the play of others, sometimes from the height of a climbing structure, while others plunge deeply into the fray of frenzied fantasy. Some taunt, relentlessly. Some are taunted, often when they inadvertently challenge the peer protocol of the yard.

The playground is where children go to make sense of their world (Perry, 2001, 2003/2004). The playground is also a place that allows adults to focus on children's developmental issues specifically because the interactions are directed by the children (Perry, 2008). The outdoors, with its flexibility in space and noise, where imagination is complemented by nature, children explore early peer culture themes of life and death, danger and safety, power and control (Corsaro, 1985, 2003). Because young children explore the meanings of their worlds through their whole body, the playground is a place for significant growth not just physically, but in social, emotional, language and cognition as well (Perry & Branum, 2009; Perry, 2011). Recognizing the play yard as part of our classroom is a first step in appreciating the powerful value of outdoor play (see, for example, NAEYC, 1998).

When children play without relying on the accomplished skills of an adult, they exercise complex challenges in language skills, perspective-taking, representational thinking, problem solving, and turn-taking as they work hard to keep their games going (Frost, Shin & Jacobs, 1998; Pelligrini, 1984, 1998). What are they learning out of doors that they could not learn inside? Children use natural materials like dirt, woodchips, sand and leaves to follow their own inventiveness in a large space that allows them to use their whole body to explore, plan and carry out their plan without restrictions of noise and space. Why is it so important that children play outside? A climbing structure, sand area, or tire swing suggest physical challenges, but leave the theme of play up to the children. As children begin to identify with each other as a separate group from the adults in their lives, they seek out their peers for friendship and feelings of control and accomplishment. These social skills, accomplished in the company of each other, are the predictors of academic achievement and school adjustment by the time children are in elementary school (Pelligrini & Blatchford, 2002). We know that when children playfully interact with their environment, they receive immediate information and feedback about how the world works. During play, children's own thinking, feelings and experiences are tested again and again by the consequences of their actions. Playful interaction with objects and people in the child's world builds confidence, self-esteem, and an inner drive to seek out new information (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 2004).

Outdoor play offers experience and practice in critical intellectual skills while capitalizing on physical maturation. Children acquire skills that contribute not just to literacy and numeracy, not just about time, space and causality, but an appreciation of themselves and others, an understanding of politics, culture, and even, in the negotiation of goods-be they prized acorns or pencils or shared granola bar pieces-economics and efficacy (Scales, Perry, & Tracy, in press). Promoting outdoor play is especially important as children's lives are increasingly regulated by the company of adults. Look to the playgrounds, where children go to make sense of their physical and social worlds and there gain a clarity of selfhood necessary to navigate life.

Corsaro, W.A. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Corsaro, W.A. (2003). We're friends, right: Inside kids' culture. Washington, DC: The Joseph Henry Press.

Frost, J., Shin, D., & Jacobs, P. (1998). Physical environments and children's play. In O. Saracho & B. Spodek  (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on play in early childhood education (pp. 255-294). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2004). Developmentally appropriate curriculum: Best practices in early childhood education. (3rd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

NAEYC. (1998). Early Years Are Learning Years: The value of school recess and outdoor play. Online:  http://www.naeyc.org/resources/eyly/1998/08.htm

Pelligrini, A.D. (1984). The effects of exploration and play on young children's associative fluency: A review and  extension in training studies. In T.D. Yawkey & A.D. Pellegrini (Eds.), Child's play: Developmental and Applied  (pp. 237-253). Hillsdale, NY: Erlbaum.

Pelligrini, A.D. (1998). Play and the assessment of children. In O. Saracho & B. Spodek (Eds.), Multiple  perspectives on play in early childhood education (pp. 220-239). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Pellegrini, A. & P. Blatchford. (2002). The Development and Educational Significance of Recess in Schools. Early Report, Vol. 29(1). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Early Education & Development, University of Minnesota. Online: http://education.umn.edu/ceed/publications/earlyreport/spring02.htm.

Perry, J.P. (2001). Outdoor play: Teaching strategies with young children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Perry, J.P. (2003).  Making sense of outdoor pretend play.  Young Children, 58(3),  26-30.  Also in Author 2. (2004).  Making sense of outdoor pretend play.  In D. Koralek (Ed.), Spotlight on young children and play (pp. 17-21). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children

Perry, J.P. (2008).  Children’s experience of security and mastery on the playground.  In E. Goodenough (Ed.).  A place for play. Carmel, CA: National Institute for Play.

Perry, J.P. (2011).  Outdoor Play.  In J. Van Hoorn, P. M. Nourot, B. Scales, & Keith R. Alward. Play at the center of the curriculum (Fifth Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson Education, Inc., 289-316.

Perry, J.P. & Branum, L. (2009, Fall).  "Sometimes I Pounce on Twigs Because I'm a Meat Eater" Supporting Physically Active Play and Outdoor Learning.  American Journal of Play, 2(2), Srong National Museum of Play, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, 195-214.

Scales, B.S., Perry, J.P. & Tracy, R. (in press). Children making sense.  New York: Teachers College Press.