As I write this, snow is on the ground and the temperature is below freezing. However, the days are increasingly longer, a sure sign that spring will soon be here. By the time you read this, you and the children you care for will like nothing better than spending many hours outside.
In thinking about spring I am reminded of two writings. the first is a work I have read so often that I almost know it word for word. It is Planning Environments for Young Children: Physical Space by Sybil Kritchevsky, Elizabeth Prescott and Lee Walling, published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The book discusses organization and space and their relationship to one another and to freedom of choice. It describes common problems in space development and offers some not so obvious suggestions for solutions. It offers useful ways of examining a yard or room to determine how it is functioning and what, if any, problems exist.
Being outside, including on playgrounds, provides opportunities for children to actively expand and create play environments. When children are happily engaged with a variety of interesting and complex materials, caregivers are able to observe and direct their attention to individuals and small groups of children. But when there is a scarcity of play materials, "caregivers will need to be actively involved and provide play ideas."
The materials young children find most involving are those which can be manipulated or stimulate improvisation. We know what they are: water, mud, sand and the various related equipment; art materials; vehicles; swings; moveable climbing boards, boxes, crates, hollow blocks, and other construction materials; dress up clothes and props.
A major part of the exhilaration of outside play is the sense of freedom to be and do according to one's own choices...to follow your own path or a friend's path or know that you could if you cared to. These are known as the senses of autonomy and initiative.
Opportunities for such developmentally stimulating behaviors can be extended by empty spaces where children can create play by bringing in materials. When caregivers provide empty play areas they extend the opportunities for children to make decisions with play materials, determining the context and the environment. Thus a small empty table outside could be used by one group of children as a spot for a domino tournament, another time as the housing for a pay phone, and still another as an airport on top of a mountain. By providing a mixture of both developed play areas (where the caregiver determines the focus of the children's play) and empty spaces and access to interesting play materials, children are able to engage in a range of developmentally important activities.
Another NAEYC brochure, "Playgrounds Safe and Sound" by Janet Brown McCracken discusses three keys to safe playgrounds.
My own view of the ideal playground is that of an empty stage-a space with only the barest of fixed equipment, but a space which stimulates children's use of all aspects of themselves-physical bodies, social skills, creative powers, thinking abilities, feelings and self-concepts. The open space can be exploited and filled with children's movements. The stage can also be used for unending creations of varied settings through the use of materials, props, and even costume pieces, supporting children's imaginative and social activities. This concept of a playground requires adults or caregivers who can provide and maintain a wide variety of simple objects. These objects can be combined and reconfigured by the children in many ways to create more complex settings which stimulate and support more complex thinking and behaviors. This requires caregivers who view outdoor play as important as indoor activities, and who will closely observe children. Your eyes can not only prevent an injury, but also see ways and opportunities to extend children's play and by so doing extend children's learning development.