How to get more out of the outdoors
by Heather Olsen and Kevin Finn
Children need opportunities and environments to move about. Unfortunately, during the past decade there has been an increase in sedentary behavior and a reduction in physical activity with young children. Emerging research has found a link between maintaining a healthy weight and children’s eating nutritious foods, engaging in daily age-appropriate physical activities, and having limited TV and video time.
Fortunately, an alarm has gone out to the early care and education profession on the importance of healthy lifestyles for young children. It is clear that the prevention of childhood obesity begins with an understanding of healthy behaviors in young children and planning strategies to promote higher levels of physical activity.
This article provides a perspective on the state of healthy lifestyles for young children and suggests ways in which the outdoor environment can safely increase their physical activity.
Why curbing obesity matters
Obesity is defined as excess (greater than the 95th percentile) of body fat in children using the body mass index (BMI) for their age and gender from growth chart standards (CDC 2000).
The problem with obesity is the link to other health issues. One study found that approximately 70 percent of obese children had high levels of at least one key risk factor for heart disease, and approximately 30 percent had levels of at least two health risk factors, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and asthma (Freedman, Mei, Srinivasan, et al. 2007).
In addition, obese children are more likely than non-obese children to have low self-esteem and feel sad, lonely, and nervous (Rofey et al. 2009).
Early weight gain measured in preschool children is associated with physical inactivity. Klesges and other researchers (1995) studied children over a three-year period and found that preschoolers with higher levels of physical activity were less likely to gain weight disproportionate to height changes.
Over the past decade, several organizations have stressed the importance of physical activity and healthy lifestyles in young children. Specifically, the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested young children sit no more than 30 minutes in one setting and have physical movement incorporated into daily planned activities (2003).
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that preschoolers spend at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity and at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of unstructured physical activity every day. Structured physical activity has been defined as a planned activity led by a teacher or caregiver and designed to accommodate the child’s developmental level. Unstructured physical activity is movement and physical play not led by an adult.
NASPE also recommends that toddlers engage in at least 30 minutes of structured physical activity and at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of unstructured physical activity every day (NASPE 2009).
What’s the role of outdoor environments?
The outdoor environment is often the most underused space in early childhood programs. Typically, it is viewed either as an academic recess or an environment for exploring. While both intents have merit, neither can ensure sufficient physical activity to prevent unnecessary weight gain.
Low levels of physical activity have been reported even during periods of free play. Hannon and Brown (2008) reported that 82 percent of the time preschool children were in either sedentary or light activity. They were engaged in vigorous physical activity only 4.5 percent of the time.
The outdoor environment can be used as more than just recess. It is an important component within children’s educational programs, and much has been written about children’s play (Frost 1992; Vygotsky 1978). In fact, early childhood literature supports the belief that it is through play children learn and develop.
Many scholars in recent years have asserted that the outdoor environment benefits children across domains—intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. Further, the design of the outdoor space, the materials in the space, and the activities available impact the intensity and amount of physical activity.
The reality is that the outdoor environment offers endless opportunities for physical development. The outdoor space is open and children can move about without being confined to a room. Movement may occur in the open grass area, on the playground equipment, on the hard surface (such as asphalt and concrete), and in the dramatic play area.
Unfortunately, children’s physical activity in many early childhood programs is lacking. Pate and other researchers (2004) who monitored preschoolers at their centers found only 7.7 minutes per hour (on average) for moderate and vigorous physical activity.
The levels vary based upon the program they attended—program policy and the environment play a role. For instance, research (Dowda, et al. 2009) indicates physical activity levels vary due to the materials in the space, such as fixed and portable play equipment. Other factors include a center’s policy related to the amount of time children spend in sedentary and physical movement (Bower, et al. 2008; Dowda, et al. 2004), teacher training and education (Bower, et al. 2008; Dowda, et al. 2009), and the type of children’s clothing (Copeland, et al. 2009).
Recent scholarship has provided solid evidence for child care programs to provide opportunities for physical movement in the outdoor environment. Research has consistently shown that during outdoor time, gross motor activity is more likely to happen (Baranowski 1993; Burdette, et al. 2004; Sallis, et al. 1993).
These studies show that it’s important for early childhood programs to create an outdoor movement policy and offer a safe and developmentally appropriate environment for children.
Practical guidelines for designing outdoor environments
How do early childhood programs begin to improve outdoor environments? Here are four guidelines.
1. Design outdoor space using standards recognized by professional organizations.
Some states and programs have specific requirements for the outdoor environment. For example, see page 8 for a list of organizations that address safety standards and regulations for outdoor play spaces.
Children’s outdoor areas have come a long way in the past 50 years. Early design advocates of play areas lacked information, but many organizations today have contributed to quality designs that enhance enjoyment and learning. Children, especially young children, deserve to play in a safe and developmentally appropriate environment that fosters their growth and development.
It is important that educators not overlook the outdoor environment for programming activities that influence the level of physical activity for all age groups. Quality spaces need to be more than a cluster of playground equipment pieces scattered throughout the space. Ideally outdoor spaces are places where children can learn, move, and enjoy activity in a developmentally appropriate environment.
2. Design an environment that provides for active opportunities.
Active opportunities are defined as daily opportunities that may result in more physical activity. Therefore, policies should state at least two times a day for outdoor play (McWilliams 2009).
The outdoor space is a powerful environment to physically develop the young child. However, physical development is often overlooked in the outdoor space, and early childhood professionals must be careful to examine the developmental benefits of not just the space but the types of materials and equipment provided. Ideally, children have a variety of opportunities for vigorous movement, such as open space to gallop, run, or skip.
If a program does not have an adequate outdoor play space with age-appropriate equipment, teachers and caregivers can look for opportunities in community parks. Kelly-Goreham (2002) found in the evaluation of children’s vigorous physical activity in four different centers (separated by ratings of outdoor space and equipment) that the center that spends time walking their children to the local park engaged in more physical activity than centers with large outdoor spaces and fixed equipment. An important reminder: the playground equipment should be developmentally appropriate and safe.
Children need access to equipment that can lead them to use both large and small muscle groups. Examples include wheeled toys, push-pull toys, balls of various sizes, bags for collecting items and carrying them, noisemakers, hula hoops, tricycles, balloons, tunnels, natural berms for climbing, crawling, and running, and dramatic play toys, such as dress-up materials and action figures.
Another tool that can get young children moving their whole bodies outdoors is music. Children can play rhythm band instruments to their heart’s content or dance to the latest hip hop, salsa, and pop tunes.
3. Make manipulative objects available for all children.
Children love to engage with their physical environment and the pieces that are present in these spaces (Nicholson 1971; Moore 1986). Research has shown that when manipulative objects are available, the children are more physically active (Hannon and Brown 2008). Manipulative objects consist of materials that children can pick up, throw, kick, examine, arrange, and chase.
According to two early childhood outdoor designers, loose parts, such as balls and dramatic play materials, make the outdoor play environment complete (Dempsey and Strickland 1999).
Teachers can consider rotating manipulative objects so children have a chance to develop a variety of muscles. For example, Monday is wheeled-toy day, Tuesday is music day, Wednesday is Olympic day, Thursday is ball day, and Friday is obstacle-course day.
Teachers can support outdoor unstructured and structured time by designing the environment with manipulative objects. For instance, on Friday a freshly designed obstacle course provides children a new experience when they go outside. Obstacle courses may look different each time and offer different experiences. Ideas include tunnels, ball targets, jumping jacks, balance beams, balloon toss, and treasure hunts.
Child-designed obstacle courses are a great way to incorporate movement as well as build relationships, confidence, and trust. Remember: A variety and sufficient quantity of materials are available so each child has the opportunity to explore and control the objects.
4. Provide for staff professional development.
To enhance physical movement outdoors, teachers need to receive training. Bower and other researchers (2008) found the lack of formal training in physical activity programming (planning and supervision) in teachers in North Carolina as one factor associated with lower scores in children’s physical activity.
Physical activity training, in addition to safety training, for teachers is recommended as a best practice (McWilliams 2009). Unfortunately, the hodgepodge of different training requirements and training programs in each state (Morgan and Costley 2004) becomes problematic in training educators. As a baseline, we suggest four skills:
1. Demonstrate an understanding of physical development including fine- and gross-motor skills for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
2. Demonstrate an understanding of NASPE’s FITT (Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type) model of physical activity.
3. Demonstrate an understanding of a safe outdoor environment.
4. Plan and implement developmentally appropriate physical development curriculum that influences the different levels (moderate to vigorous) of physical activity.
Training and education in child care affect the quality of care; therefore, offering physical activity training for staff is vital. A Head Start program, I Am Moving, I Am Learning, was implemented in 2005 to address childhood obesity in Head Start children. Staff are trained and families are encouraged to apply the practices at home. In addition, administrators and leaders can encourage all staff to receive physical movement professional development.
Make it safe
For decades, professionals and scholars have researched, theorized, and speculated about playground injuries. Unfortunately, some programs have eliminated play in the outdoors and then seen an increase in behavior problems and injuries occurring inside.
Experts in child injury litigation agree that playground injuries are complex and numerous risk factors are associated with injuries, such as lack of supervision, noncompliant fall protection material, unsafe and faulty equipment, and non-developmentally appropriate materials (personal communication). Thompson, Hudson, and Olsen (2007) suggest the design of the environment is critical to the safety factors. With appropriate planning, materials, and supervision, playground injuries can be prevented.
The decisions made about the outdoor environment affect the children’s physical activity and their safety. Teachers can investigate and use the resources on page 9 for refining policies, planning an outdoor environment, encouraging children to move, and helping stem the current epidemic of childhood obesity.
Improve the outdoors—Improve quality care
Early childhood educators and children spend many hours together. If the outdoor environment is well-designed and planned, children will be eager to move. A program’s philosophies, schedules, routines, and transitions influence the safety and quality of the outdoor environment.
Each needs to be examined to determine whether programs are providing environments that get and keep children moving safely.
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About the author
Heather Olsen, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Kevin Finn, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa.