Question: My director is always bugging me to take my kids outside, even when it’s cold or wet. I don’t mind that much myself, but as soon as they get out there they get wet and muddy, and half the time they don’t have clothes to change into, and their parents get upset. We have a pretty big multi-purpose room I can take them to for gross motor, so it’s not like they never get to run around. Is there actually a rule about this?
Answer: Licensing laws do require an hour outside every day for a full-day program, weather permitting. And going outside every day has huge benefits for children and teachers in terms of mood, physical health, and development. It can be tricky, though, if your outside space isn’t in great condition, or if the weather makes every change of scenery a major change of wardrobe as well. If you’ve got children who aren’t yet dressing themselves, or parents who don’t supply extra clothes, the challenges increase.
Indoors gross motor is a great option, but should ideally happen in addition to outside time, not as a replacement. Going outside helps strengthen children’s immune systems and prevent illness from spreading. It also stimulates curiosity about nature and science topics that children love to engage in: watching birds or clouds, finding leaves or pinecones, even investigating mud puddles, can all be great starting points for science learning. Many teachers and centers make outdoor learning a cornerstone of their curriculum, because there are so many possibilities for using materials in creative ways: painting with sticks, counting stones, building structures out of loose parts, etc. Bringing art outside minimizes the worry about messing up the classroom, and voices or music that would be too noisy inside are just fine on the playground.
A well-designed outdoor environment does minimize drainage problems, and provides a variety of surfaces for children to experience. If your playground has major water issues, or is just not meeting the needs of your children due to safety concerns or space constraints, it might be a good idea to talk to your director or board about what can be done. There are grants available to help centers improve their outdoor environments without too much financial strain.
It can help to include a statement in your parent information packet explaining your center’s policy: “The outdoors is a fundamental part of our learning environment here at the center, so we go outside almost every day, except in a case of severe weather. The space was carefully designed to provide opportunities for young children to strengthen their minds and bodies. Your children might get wet or dirty, so it’s important for their comfort and safety that they have at least one full set of extra clothes to change into, including shoes.” Enlist your director’s help in making sure parents understand that this is a requirement of the program.
You may need to talk through the importance of outside time with some parents, but it pays to be persistent. Due to safety concerns and lifestyle changes, children rarely get to play outside today the way they did in past generations. As adults, our fondest memories often center on running through our neighborhoods or local wild spaces with other children, playing freely with whatever we found. Even if that’s not possible for most of today’s children, we can still do our best to provide them with a chance to explore nature freely, building skills and confidence no matter what the season.