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Unstructured Outside Play

  • Debating the necessity of childhood: why questioning recess is ludicrous

    For starters, it’s pretty absurd that I’m actually writing a post on why recess is necessary. Isn’t it obvious that it’s necessary? Turns out, it’s not. 40 percent of school districts in the US have reduced recess time and nearly 7 percent of school districts have eliminated recess altogether.

    As someone who makes an effort to incorporate playfulness into my own workday routine, I am very concerned about the unwarranted squeeze on recess. The thought of little kids, who should be tearing through the playground, spending all day at school being chained to a desk is scary.

    When are folks going to realize that recess offers much more than a chance for kids to work up a sweat? It benefits every aspect of childhood development and leads to better behavior and grades. So the fact that it’s being taken away from children as a punishment for bad behavior or to increase focus on academics is mind-boggling.

    Recess is the one time a day when kids go outside and are able to choose what they do. It is important for kids and big kids alike to take breaks and do things that someone else isn’t telling us to do. Do you remember the math class or homework from seventh grade? Probably not. But you’re much more likely to have fond memories of the made-up game that you and friends played for days together on the playground.

    Kids have big imaginations and we need to give them the space to utilize it! Demanding that they move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tells us that we should be doing the opposite.

    Does your child get enough recess?

  • Scattered showers with a 100 percent chance no one else will be at the playground

    Chantal Panozzo is an American writer who spent almost a decade in Switzerland. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many other publications. The author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, she is a mom to a four-year-old puddle jumping daughter. Together, often dressed from head to toe in rubbery wonderfulness, they continue to embrace the European lifestyle they once lived, even from their new home in the Chicago suburbs.

    My daughter and I both love Peppa Pig for the same reason: she joyfully jumps in muddy puddles. Being British, Peppa Pig goes outside when Americans don’t. My daughter—even though she’s also American—plays outside in less than optimal weather too. She can’t help it—she was born and spent her first three years in Switzerland, where playtime was almost always synonymous with outdoor time.

    Oh, to enjoy the weather. To really and truly sing in the rain instead of watching someone else do so in a movie. To see your breath in the cold air. To feel a snowflake on your tongue. But as I have learned after moving back to the U.S. after spending almost a decade in Europe, embracing the weather is un-American. We hide in our heated and air conditioned houses year-round, allowing our temperature-controlled surroundings to create the perfect climate for couch sitting while we wait for the four perfect days a year we consider the great outdoors great.

    As a mother in Switzerland, I didn’t think twice about dressing my infant daughter in an enormous snowsuit and placing her atop a picnic table at 7,000 feet above sea level while my husband and I drank in the cold Alpine air like its own après ski offering. We snow shoed through knee-deep mountain trails with our daughter on our back. We sat outside at Swiss cafes year round while our daughter sat bundled in a specially designed sleep sack attached to her mountain stroller. We hiked in the rain. We hiked when it was hot. We hiked when it was cold. And when our daughter learned to walk, she hiked in every kind of weather too.

    So imagine my surprise when we moved back to the States and I took my daughter’s collection of rubber rain pants, boots, and big coats to her new Montessori school only to find that they spent more time on her coat hook than on her. Weather has power over American children, not vice versa. The notes from the school told us just that when they reminded us of the appropriate temperatures for outdoor play.

    If you observe what most American kids wear, you wouldn’t know what season it is. Sweaters are worn in the summer since air conditioning allows us to forget its summer. Mary Janes are worn on snowy days since walking outdoors is not something a car culture encourages. And rainy days don’t inspire rain boots and rubber pants, but YouTube videos of British pigs jumping in puddles while American children, ever dry and climate controlled, watch them have all the fun.

    Recently, I visited a Finnish father of a 3-year-old, who had moved to New York City after living in Helsinki, Düsseldorf, and London.

    “I don’t get it,” he said. “My new son’s school tells me I overdress him. I’m just dressing him properly for the weather so he can play outside.”

    “Do you have those European rain pants too?” I asked.

    He nodded and I smiled. “Perfect. Let’s go to the park.”

    It was cold; there were scattered showers in the forecast but also a 100 percent chance that we didn’t care. As the kids joyfully went up and down the slides in a Central Park playground, my Finnish friend and I looked around, but there wasn’t much to see. We were in a city of 8.4 million, yet thanks to a few dark clouds, we had the playground to ourselves.

  • National Park Rx Day

    Have you had a healthy dose of the outdoors recently? If not, Park Rx Day is just what the doctor ordered. April 24th marks the first ever National Park Rx Day. Sponsored by the National Park Service, it’s a full 24 hours dedicated to promoting parks, nature and outdoor play in an effort to improve human health. In other words, it is a time to recognize just how beneficial nature can be to our well-being.

    Getting active and outside is more important than ever in this technology-filled era. According to the National Park Service, “Last fall, the U.S. Surgeon General released a call to action to promote walking and walkable communities. National Park Rx Day builds on this call to action and provides citizens with parks and green spaces to promote public health.”

    Today, like every other day, it’s important get outside and get active! As we all know, play is a critical piece of children and adults’ lives, alike. But people often forget that engaging in unstructured, outdoor play is just as important. Being active in the fresh air has various mental, social and physical benefits. Increased time outside can lead to improved mood, improved health and increased connections with community and nature. On National Park Rx Day, it’s important to recognize these benefits of the great outdoors.

    Parks present various opportunities for activities from walking on trails to playing on playgrounds to having a picnic. Each activity provides a chance to connect with nature in a different way – whether it be soaking up some sunshine or running off some stress on your favorite trail.

    The Surgeon General’s park prescription recommends you find your park and see how many ways you can incorporate play into nature!

    Luckily parents don’t need a MD after their name to provide this important directive to their kids.

    How will you observe National Park Rx Day?

  • Ramona Quimby in 2016

    This week iconic children’s book author Beverly Cleary turns 100. For the uninitiated, 91 million copies of her books have been sold since 1950. One of her most famous characters is Ramona Quimby, a feisty child whose upbringing was nothing short of “free range” by today’s standards.

    In a Washington Post article recognizing the milestone, Cleary said, “I don’t think I joined this century. I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”

    Cleary points to the idea that when she was growing up, the majority of mothers worked inside of the home and that all mothers kept their eyes on all children in the neighborhood. She cites this as one of the reasons for the characters in her books being out and about without adult chaperones.

    In her books, Ramona isn’t overscheduled or coddled. She has fun by stretching her imagination and taking initiative. But Ramona isn’t just having a good time in the books. When things go awry along the way, we witness her learning from her various missteps.

    In 2016, Ramona’s parents would likely be reported to the authorities for letting her wander the neighborhood on her own. I don’t remember once reading about her parents scheduling a play date, hovering at the playground or carting her from music lesson to sports practice. Instead, I recall an adventurous, free spirited girl who inspired me to think for myself, question authority and be comfortable with not always fitting in.

    Do you remember reading books in the Ramona series? Which of Ramona’s free range adventures do you remember most fondly?

  • What kids need from adults?

    You might think kids today have it good – endless amounts of information at their fingertips, devices to occupy their time, emojis so they can talk in code to their friends and almost no one has to walk to school anymore.

    But you know what I think? Being a kid today is hard. Think about it. Most kids and teenagers have boatloads of homework, but before they can tackle that work, they have to take a music lesson and go to soccer practice. Some kids even have scheduled play dates. But what about just letting loose and having time for free play? That, my friends, is why being a kid today is hard. There is too little time to relax and be carefree – and really important aspects of development happen when adults back off and let kids explore through unstructured play.

    Honestly, every time I speak to an adult about early child development and developing all sorts of skills, I’m left thoroughly confused. Folks want their kids to be quick learners but don’t want them to spend time doing stuff (read: playing) that might actually benefit them. The general thinking is that play and learning are two separate things, which, in my mind, is nothing short of crazy. Or, as I believe the kids are saying, cray cray.

    For me, the issue of play is serious and this conversation with Erika Christakis struck a chord.

    Her new book, The Importance of Being Little, is a plea for adults - educators and parents alike -  to forgo the mind numbing flashcards, old school worksheets and teaching Mandarin to preschoolers in favor of good old-fashioned play (um, when did play become old-fashioned and can we please change this?).

    Christakis writes, "the distinction between early education and official school seems to be disappearing."

    Why can’t more people get on this page and forget the widely accepted norms? I often wonder why we’re complicating things so much when the answer’s really quite simple. Let your kids play!

    What kids really need right now is for adults to start acting. We need to stop forcing them into so called “meaningful” activities when all they really need to (and want to) do is to play in the mud or roll in the grass. Want to explain the theory of gravity? Don’t just have them read about it in a musty textbook. Go to the playground and have them drop several objects from different heights of playground structures. Above all, make sure you work towards creating relevant and rich play experiences that foster a sense of security and emotional well-being among your kids.

    Stop looking at play as an option; make play a priority!

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