Reconsidering Getting Kids to Go Outside

carriages trodheim

American kids, when they have unstructured free time, seem to favor playing inside. Conventional wisdom cites computers, video games, and TV programs as some of the primary culprits that seduce kids into staying indoors. These beliefs are so entrenched that some manufacturers of playground equipment are finding ways (I think foolishly) to bring electronic gaming into outdoor spaces.

While it is easy to blame electronics, we haven’t looked diligently for deeper, more systemic causes. The problem may be both simple and easily rectifiable: we don’t expose children to the outdoors when they are very young. We don’t introduce American children to cold weather as infants and then we don’t consistently make sure that they continue to spend time outside -in all weathers and all climates- when they are toddlers and preschoolers. When they get to elementary school we bemoan the fact that they do not play outdoors; it may be that by that time the kids have grown so “addicted” to the indoors that their habits are hard to break.   Why should 7 or 8 year olds want suddenly to play outside when it has not been part of their routine since birth?

I had an epiphany when I went to visit Skjaermveien Barnehage (kindergarten) in Trondheim, Norway. I didn’t go to Trondheim to learn specifically about kindergarten buildings which house what we would call “day care/pre-school”; children can be as young as newborn and as old as 6 years. I went to look at outdoor playspaces. I was heartily rewarded by the fire pit that dominates the playground. The excellent Oslo firm Haugen / Zohar designed it. Their elegant and useful structure, built of repurposed wood left over at a construction site, is the place kids come to in the early dark winter mornings to sit around a fire and hear a story or trek to at lunchtime so they can toast their own sandwiches. The children are aware of the danger of fire and they quickly learn to respect it with self-constraint and care. They also play freely outdoors when lunch is over.

After viewing the playground, I saw the main building and noticed a deep overhang with a line up of baby carriages. From my short visits to central and northern Norway, I saw that these types of overhangs are not uncommon. The experienced firm 70°N arkitektur, which has worked on several preschools in Tromsø (200 miles north of the Arctic Circle), cleverly and accurately refers to them as a “roofed outdoor terrace.”

Parked carriages made total sense to me. The infants must have been wheeled over by parents who left the prams or strollers there with the intention of using them to transport their small fry back home in the evening. It was early November when I was in Trondheim; there was snow on the ground and the air was raw. The cold and the snow just reinforced the reason adults wouldn’t want to wheel an empty carriage home and then have to bring it back when they picked up their little ones.

Then the most amazing thing happened as I walked toward the overhang. I thought I saw a slight movement from one of the carriages. Then I saw the same thing from a second one. Then I was told that this was the end of naptime. Each carriage held an infant who had taken a nap outside. They were just beginning to wake up and would soon go indoors to be fed.

I had an flashback to 1997, when multiple American newspapers lambasted a Danish woman who left her 14-month-old child outside a New York City restaurant while she ate inside. She was arrested because the police felt she had endangered her child. I realized that we have not only a cultural divide about perceived safety but also a gulf about when it is acceptable for children to be outdoors. For Scandinavians, the answer is “almost always.”

I think this early acculturation to inclement weather makes it possible for Norwegian “traditional” kindergartens to have children go outside for 4 or 5 hours per day; “nature kindergartens” (according to play authority Ellen Sandseter), provide 6 or 7 hours of outdoor play. There is, after all, an old Scandinavian adage that “there is no such thing as cold weather; only people who are not dressed properly.” A fireman from Tromsø confirmed the same saying when I asked him if school were ever cancelled there for a bad snowstorm. His response (and a few giggle) was: “What, do you think we don’t own warm clothes?”

Two recent events in my home state, New Jersey, are encouraging. In Montclair, parents who call themselves “Montclair Parents for Recess,” are arguing that children should have outdoor free play when the temperature is as low as 22 degrees; the current threshold is 35 degrees. And The Trenton Times had a front-page article that highlighted the Painted Oak Nursery School (Hopewell, NJ) and its founding director Nicole Langdo. Last year, the school was able to move from a confined site to a building at a 225-acre summer day camp. Langdo, who has long been fascinated by the concept of the Forest School (a popular British concept that functions like the Norwegian schools by having get kids outdoors for many hours in all weather conditions), was able to implement a nature program for the 2 to 6 year olds who attend her pre-school. At least once a week, morning begins with a hike. Then they “set up a base camp and work together on such projects as building a bridge to cross a creek.” They do this for a minimum of three hours. On other days, the kids get to experience the nearby woods or meadows for extended play times. Langdo had the guts to alter the direction of most preschool curricula and it is paying off: one two year old begins every weekend morning by insisting that his parents let him go outside ASAP.

We are at a promising moment for change. Many pre-school and elementary facilities are bringing nature areas and natural playgrounds into their school yards; let’s hope they begin to reassess how long children spend in them and decide to use these new areas for the longest possible hours each day. Many cities are beginning to institute or argue for a public universal pre-K program. As these go forward and bring 4 year olds into regular care settings, let’s hope that the advocates will also consider outdoor activities as a critical component of daily life.

If we could readjust our thinking and urge everyone- institutions and parents- to expose children to the outdoors from an early age, then we might find children choose outside play as they mature.

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