well as learning to confront and express their own ideas and fears appropriately,
often within the context of exploration or play.

The Benefits of Outdoor Time and Recess
Playtime is an essential part of all early childhood programs and of raising chil-
dren in general. It is central to both physical and social-emotional development.

Play gives children opportunities to be loud and boisterous, which is generally
not allowed indoors. And, as most educators know, young children need time
and space to “burn off their energy” and “get the wiggles out.” Play offers chil-
dren ways to challenge themselves physically and to explore the dynamics of
peer relationships, and it’s the context in which most young children learn best.

Many pre-K settings are play based, with a stronger focus on play than academ-
ics, whether indoors or out. Most early childhood
advocates strongly support play in all its possi-
ble contexts, and I do too. There are many great
places and ways to play, most of which have a
direct positive impact on children. In this chapter,
however, I’m referring specifically to the kind of
play that happens during unstructured outdoor
play, such as recess or field days, or unstructured
time in nature. Be aware that the type, quality,
and depth of play that occurs in nature-based set-
tings is different than that which occurs on play
structures or park equipment. While any outdoor
time is preferable to time spent indoors, a set-
Nature offers opportunities for children to practice
ting other than a structured play yard with plas-
critical thinking and confront hesitation or fear.

tic equipment will do more to support children’s
development in many ways.

While regulations vary from state to state and program to program, most
people who work with young children are well aware of the benefits of unstruc-
tured outdoor play and are committed to making time for it each day. Many
states require at least some daily physical activity for young children, though
there are no federal requirements for outdoor time or recess. However, to
combat a rapid rise in obesity rates among children ages six to eleven, the Cen-
ters for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least one hour per day
of physical activity for all children in grades K–6.

Also, an American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on School Health (2013)
report cited a common problem of elementary schools reducing or eliminating
Why Kids Need Nature 23

recess time in order to ensure enough time for academic work. This is a false
choice, especially as it relates to young children, since children actually engage
in rich intellectual work and a significant amount of STEM learning during
unstructured play, particularly when that time is spent in nature-based set-
tings. Eliminating the opportunity for play is simply counterintuitive, since we
know it is so important for children’s health and well-being.

How Nature Supports the Development of Soft
Skills In addition to building vocabulary, social-emotional skills, and others, engag-
ing in STEM outdoors can help nurture creativity, collaboration, critical
thinking, and communication skills, a set of characteristics that are often
referred to as “soft skills” or “twenty-first-century
skills”—although most people would agree these
are timeless qualities! Spending time outdoors in
natural settings has a number of powerful effects
on children, including increased self-control and
better motor coordination, judgment, self-esteem,
concentration, and ability to focus. In addition,
children participate in more creative and coopera-
tive play with others, and develop communication
and critical thinking skills when given plenty of
access to nature (Chawla 2012). These are the same
inter- and intrapersonal skills that are facilitated
Children have plenty of opportunities for creative
through high-quality engagement in the practices
play and social connections outdoors.

of STEM.

SELF-REGULATION Self-regulation is defined as the ability to control one’s body and emotions as
well as managing one’s focus and attention (Phillips and Shonkoff 2000). During
nature play, children have many opportunities to practice self-regulation. Con-
sider this example of children picnicking at the water’s edge: A flock of ducks
comes waddling up, hungry for scraps of torn sandwich crusts. Although chil-
dren may squeal with delight and squirm with excitement, they discover that
keeping relatively still and speaking in hushed tones will keep the ducks from
flying away. They quickly realize what sorts of behavior—slow movements, quiet
voices—will encourage the ducks to remain close, allowing the children more of
a connection with the animals.

24 Chapter 2