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A soft breeze blows through the leafless trees while a gentle mist softens the air surrounding a small group of children. The sounds of laughter and playful shrieks echoes through the winter hillside as a small creek babbles by. At first, the children toss rocks into the shallow stream. Then, one jumps as high as he can and lands with a splash in the middle of the stream, splashing his mates. Instead of anger or irritation, the other children join in. They are laughing, climbing out onto nearby rocks and doing it again and again. In fact, they continue to splash and play in the creek for nearly an hour, happily enjoying the sensations of sight and sound as the water muddies and flows downstream.
There are two adults supervising all of this with quiet amusement. No, they are not irritated that the children are getting wet and they will have to go back inside soon. They understand that children are participating in important work: playing in nature. They also know that the children are dressed properly for the chilly, damp weather. They have on insulated, water-proof boots and one piece rain suits over warm layers that keep them dry and warm.
There are fewer and fewer opportunities for children to engage in outdoor play, especially in weather deemed “inappropriate”. Most public schools have policies that keep children inside on chilly or damp days. This is often in response to parents’ concerns over health and safety. The truth is, there is no bad weather, just bad clothes.
“No Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothes”
This is a well known phrase amongst outdoor educators. When learning takes place, it is important to remember that basic needs like physical well-being must be met. This is the basic principal behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Children learn best when they are safe, clothed and fed. That is why it is so crucial for outdoor educators to ensure their students are dressed appropriately for the outdoors.
In a group of 7 or 8 children, if there is one child who is not outfitted properly, this is the child who is crying and ready to go home while the rest of the children are blissfully playing. Being able to play outdoors is a skill that children learn. Having positive experiences means being dressed appropriately so that they associate outdoor play with fun!
At Little Schoolhouse in the Woods, we have a favorite rain suit: Tuffo. That isn’t to say that there aren’t others, but our experiences with Tuffo have been awesome! And, no, we are not being compensated for this endorsement. For the children, a one piece suit like Tuffo’s Muddy Buddy work best. The children tend to fall and slide and play in ways that adults don’t, and the one piece design keeps them thoroughly dry. Plus, when sized right, there is room for coats and layers underneath. I don’t recommend tucking their pant legs into the boots, but, instead, keeping them on the outside of the boot. A dry kid is a happy kid!
Boundaries help children feel safe. Children often act out when they do not know what is expected of them. They spend a lot of time exploring and pushing the boundaries we set for them. This is a natural and normal process. As adults, it is our job to set limits and to clearly communicate them to our children.
Calm and Clear: The Captains of the Ship
It isn’t necessary to enforce these boundaries with punitive measures or “consequences”, either. Simply stating and consistently standing firm on the principals we set forth is all that is necessary. Repetition and consistency foster the security children crave. As adults, we must exercise patience in this process because it is a process. It isn’t a lesson that happens once, and then it’s over. We must often set limits and communicate them clearly many times before they are understood. Being matter-of-fact about these limits is important, too. This isn’t an emotional struggle, it is a safety issue.
“Hold my hand in the parking lot. I will keep you safe.” We are the adults, it is important to maintain a calm, firm hand on the rudder. We are in charge, and we know what is best. When we lose our cool and shout or punish, it shows a lack of control, and then who is steering the ship? “I see that you don’t want to hold my hand right now, so I will carry you. I love you and will keep you safe.”
The only time I find it necessary to enforce rules with punitive measures isn’t even actually punitive. It is an issue of safety. If a child is physically going to harm themselves or others, I may have to say, “You know you may not throw the blocks. I cannot let you hurt your friends. It is time to play elsewhere,” then I assist that child in finding another place to play. We should avoid getting frustrated or angry. Being firm shows confidence and lets children know that we are serious. We do not need to shout or threaten to be effective leaders. And, yes, it is okay to acknowledge a child is upset or distressed, but we mustn’t allow that to distress and upset us.
The Importance of Free-play
I am a big proponent of free-play. Children benefit from time to do what they want in a safe environment. Free-play does not mean anarchy, it means freedom to play and explore the world around them without interference from adults or danger. Our job is to keep them safe, not tell them how to play. Through this kind of play, children develop a healthy sense of independence.
Start Early. Hug often.
Boundaries are erected when the limits are clearly communicated. You don’t need a fence, you need to be clear and consistent with your expectations. It is harder to place limits once a child knows that there are none. I once heard this analogy: Our children need warm, tight hugs when they are younger, and, as boundaries are expanded, we can loosen those hugs. Once a child has unlimited freedom, it is nearly impossible to reign in those limits. We must have clear, consistent, and reasonable boundaries and expectations from children at an early age. As they mature and show competence in different areas, we may loosen restrictions and broaden boundaries appropriately. If we give children total freedom from the beginning, they don’t feel safe, and will not understand when we place new restrictions on them.
Mr. Jay is an outdoor educator with Little Schoolhouse in the Woods. He learned everything he knows about early childhood education from his wife and co-teacher, Ms. Lee (Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/littleschoolhouseinthewoods/). Mr. Jay holds a Bachelor’s degree in Early Education, PK-3, with a 4th and 5th grade endorsement.
Are we truly helping children when we do things for them? It depends on where the child is developmentally. According to Vygotsky, a prominent education theorist, children learn best when tasks aren’t too hard or too easy, known as the zone of proximal development (1978). The amount of help from adults and peers can be referred to as scaffolding (Wood et al. ,1976). Scaffolding refers to the assistance a person needs when learning a new task or concept. This assistance is removed when no longer needed. Being tuned into an individual child’s developmental readiness is a key factor for knowing when and how much scaffolding is needed for a particular skill.
It is important to focus on building a growth mindset through praise of effort, not achievement. Children will grow up and be able to put their shoes on by themselves. Our goal isn’t only to teach children how to accomplish the task, but to encourage them to develop a sense of perseverance. We do not praise children for putting their shoes on, we praise their effort.
Watching a child struggle to solve a problem on their own without interfering can be difficult to do. If you have been truly present with your child, and connected with them in a real way, it will be easier to let go and allow them to play by themselves or to work at mastering a task such as putting on their own socks. I know that I often want to swoop in and hand them that thing they are struggling to reach, or to switch their shoes so that they are on the right feet, but true learning comes from trial and error. That means they try, and sometimes, they fail. It is through the mistakes that children learn what to adjust for the next time. Because there will be a next time. That is when fostering perseverance pays off.
Here are some tips to promote perseverance:
- Allow children the time and opportunity to dress themselves.
- Let children solve puzzles and build block towers, train tracks, etc. all by themselves.
- Know your child and only assist when necessary and as little as possible. Don’t immediately do something for a child when you see them struggle.
- Allow children to drink out of regular cups and glasses. Sippy cups may avoid spills, but that is how children learn.
- Stay calm and patient. Not only does this model the behavior we want from our children, but it lets them know we have confidence in their abilities to master tasks.
Building self-confidence and endurance in early childhood is a foundation for happiness later in life. In order to develop these characteristics, children need time and space to practice doing things for themselves. Life is hectic, and we are often on deadlines and schedules, rushing from one place or activity to another. Whenever possible, calmly, patiently allow a child to struggle. Avoid getting emotional or impatient, and just observe. If necessary, offer advice or a hand in moving forward, but as much as possible, allow children the opportunity to accomplish their tasks on their own. In the end, they will be better off by having struggled and built up their perseverance.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.
“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.” ~Fred Rogers.
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” Kay Redfield Jamison (professor of psychiatry)
Life is busy. There are endless deadlines, obligations, appointments, work, school, and social commitments. Packing the kids up from one place, rushing to another, finding time to eat, getting the kids ready for bed, waking up in the morning and doing it all over again. This is normal. Especially if you have more than one child. Managing busy schedules can be very challenging for parents, but even more so for children. Children are strong and resilient, but have a need for down time. Not the kind that they get in the car, either. In fact, sometimes you have to just schedule time for doing nothing.
In fact, if you want to see the relationship with your child truly blossom, just sit with them. We don’t have to always read a book, or be doing something. Sometimes, just sitting and staring at the clouds can be a bonding experience. Just sit and let them play in the sandbox. Kick a ball back and forth. It is the simplest act for a child to play, but as an adult, it can be difficult sometimes. The decision to consciously and intentionally NOT impose our own ideas of what we should do, and allowing young children the freedom to decide what to do, can be the most beneficial decision we make as parents, educators, and caregivers . This is the heart of child centered, play-based education. The spontaneous and self-determined play that a young child engages in, is probably the most important time they spend. Free time promotes resilience, creativity, and problem solving skills. So, schedule time for unscheduled play time. Your kids will thrive, and you will see a positive difference in them.
Listen to what Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and others have to say here
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by Mr. Jay
Children love to play outdoors! Having a fun, inviting outdoor play space is a necessity when working with children. I’ve been lucky enough to have some space to build a natural playscape, and it has been one of my greatest pleasures since I started working with children. Visioning, building, and then seeing the children enjoy the space has been truly rewarding.
Daily, I get to see the therapeutic value of play, (read what Janet Lansbury has to say about it here) and I witness children benefitting from open ended, simple, and natural materials. Mud, sand, water, wood chips, sticks, and rocks are favorite ingredients for countless kid’s recipes and games. I am grateful to have had the privilege of fostering an environment where children are free to play as they like.
Several years ago, a large tree fell on our property. Suddenly, the expression “windfall” made perfect sense! Here was all the material I needed to make seats, benches, a sandbox, and more! So, after the investment of a quality chainsaw, and several weeks of hard work, I was able to build a playspace that I enjoyed watching the children play in, almost as much as they enjoyed playing in it! After sinking a number of stumps into the ground in a circle, we then filled the middle with sand, creating a wonderful sand play area. The problem was how to keep it clean, dry, and critters out of it. Well, a 10’X12′ tarp, bungees, and stakes solved that problem.
Over time, I’ve added a couple more elements, and it just keeps improving! Of course, I have more ideas than time, but the process is what is so very enjoyable. At this point in the essay, I’d like to pause and note that I could not have done any of this without Ms. Lee! 90% of all of the ideas were hers, and mostly, I just used the power tools. She helped me move huge stumps, and had an active, physical hand in all of the work. She has such an incredible vision that I often worked to help her build something (like the play sink), that I wasn’t sure how it would look, and it turned out quite nice, plus, the children absolutely love it! They use it almost daily, year round! Boy, was I ever wrong to think that a used kitchen sink in the yard would look like trash. The children have so much fun, and it looks quite nice.
The play kitchen with the sink, combined with the sand play area, is a year round favorite for the kids. I hope you are able to find some inspiration and build your own natural play space for children, too!
by Mr. Jay
Get ready for early education to shift paradigms, away from standardized content, towards student centered, play based outdoor education. While Common Core and state standards are becoming a fixture in public education, and the focus is on testing, student centered learning and connections to the natural world through play-based curriculum are in danger of being left out of early education. While the need to have standards is important to assess the quality of education, homogenizing curriculum isn’t the answer. In fact, individualizing and customizing education is what will ultimately raise the overall quality of education. Plus, there is plenty of research to support the idea that children’s cognitive development benefits from free play and adult led play. Parents want highly qualified teachers and solid pedagogy, and they don’t want to see their children get left behind. Well, how about no child left inside?
Consider the foundation for learning to be the rock on which your child’s education is built. Early childhood programs are no longer a babysitter for while you’re at work, but a comprehensive educational environment in which children become students of life! It is vital that children’s early school experiences are full of joy and foster a lifelong love of learning. Outdoor education embraces a student led approach, valuing free play and organized play as a fundamental approach to early education.
When we expect our children to learn to read and do math before they are ready, we deprive them of the opportunities to experience the world in their own way and in their own time. Save academics for first grade, and let preschoolers develop social skills and explore the world in an experimental, hands-on approach. Allow children time to play outside and in the woods as much as possible, engaging their curiosity, enriching their experiences, and exploring their world.
If you still feel you need a reason to ditch academic preschools, here are four from Janet Lansbury.
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by Mr. Jay
Outdoor education is organized learning in an outdoor setting. Growing in popularity, forest schools, or waldkindergartens, as they are called in Europe, are early childhood preschool/kindergartens, where a majority of the activities take place in an outdoor setting, preferably, in the woods. Of course, each outdoor education program is different, and there are many factors to take into account. An accessible woodland suitable for exploring and playing, along with a suitable shelter for extreme weather, is important. The children should become comfortable with an outdoor approach to education by introducing them to the woods gradually. Children play and become familiar with a wooded location. This area becomes a base.
Outdoor educators build trust and relationships as the children develop self confidence in outdoor settings. When the children are ready, the teacher(s) can lead a group to familiarize themselves with a trail into the woods. These initial outings allow the children to explore the woodlands while establishing physical and behavioral boundaries. Child-led projects can take place once the safety procedures, hygiene, and routines are in place, a
Supporting Basic Needs First
In outdoor education, as well as all education, the basic needs of the children should be met (Maslow’s Pyramid of Hierarchical Needs). The children should be dressed properly in order to keep warm and dry in all types of weather. Healthy snacks and/or meals should be available, as well as plenty of water or warm drinks. Of course, the safety of the children, both physically and emotionally, is of utmost importance. Once these are taken care of, the learning and fun can begin!
Hand and finger gestures accompany simple songs and become the highlight of the circle time. In outdoor education, circles are held outside in most kinds of weather. Snacks and meals are a pleasure when eaten outdoors with friends. Children learn about plants, trees, birds, and animals which is so much fun! Children learn to recognize evidence of animals: tracks, scat, or food remains. They learn to identify fossils. Social skills are strengthened, physical skills are honed, and mental skills are built up. The foundations of outdoor education are learner-led, play-based, and nature-immersed learning.
Of course, if you’d like to learn more about outdoor education Little Schoolhouse in the Woods, or find out how to contact us, you can click here.
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Welcome to Ms. Lee’s Little Schoolhouse in the Woods! We are so pleased you’ve come to learn more about us and our Nature School and Childcare! Stay tuned, we are under construction, and will be adding lots of photos and links to stuff that inspires us as we educate children in the scenic beauty of Mt. Airy Forest!