Boundaries in the Outdoors

Tina Leonard | Brevard, NC

One of the places that the children play is an open area of grass, with some large beautiful boulders, and an old hemlock tree. There are boundaries that the children learn and respect. They understand how they are helpers in that they do not venture into the well-manicured flower beds. They understand that the creek is not in our boundaries so they respect the creatures, in particular, water snakes, in their habitat. The children learn that we share the outdoors with other living things. They may capture some creatures being mindful to be gentle and then to relocate the critters to different locations where running feet will not trample them. The children learn about some of the plants, the temporarily captured creatures, the uncaptured creatures. Lessons from class overflow to the outdoors. For instance, if the children are learning about clouds, the water cycle, the change of season or the weather, we connect that to their play outside.

Outside, teachers try to make themselves unseen as much as they do in the classroom, though they help hold boundaries. The teachers might engage with a child to see if she has a plan by saying, “I notice you look as though you are interested in climbing up that rock. Do you have a plan first for how you will get down?” If a child is new to conflict resolution, a teacher will step in to support and teach the child how to participate in a Peace Talk. Otherwise, the teachers’ role is to observe.

And it is fascinating to watch! The children bring so much with them while they are outside. Their imaginations are fully engaged. Often the good person, bad person scenario is being played out.  “Person” is used here intentionally because boys and girls are often both active in this type of play at various times and so it isn’t always a “guy”. They may be ninjas, capturing others to put in jail, fairies, mermaids, or dinosaurs. Each class is different in what they bring to outdoor time.

Other times, the children may be playing out some real event that is happening in their bigger world. Recently the children learned that the hemlock tree will be cut down for some beautiful renovations that will be happening here on campus within the next couple of years. This information inspired some play among some of the children. This play included finding the tiny cones from the hemlock and planting them to grow more trees to replace this tree once it is cut down.

Sometimes, play is a way for the children to gain some control over events in their lives that they have no control over or are struggling to understand. They play out different scenarios and possibly find some creative solutions. Play sometimes makes concepts more manageable for the coping skills that the children are growing and developing.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play allows children to use their creativity   while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.” Unstructured play, I imagine, helps to bridge the learning that comes later when children begin engaging in more structured “play” such as red light/green light, soccer, ballet, baseball, hopscotch, and other games.

While it may not be obvious while watching children at play, there is much learning happening.

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