Monday, April 13, 2015

Outside with our Children

A MOPS talk...

To moms who have been battling pent up energy in their little ones during the cold winter, the spring weather is a Godsend!  Getting outside is easier after being cooped up from winter.  And it’s a good time to start a habit of getting out regularly for walks and just free play outside.  Get some appropriate gear, good shoes and clothing for both your children and yourself and go outside with them!

A while back I gave a MOPS talk (Mothers of Preschoolers) on fostering a love of reading in your child--I will go back next month and write on that one. (I wrote a while back on Reading Books with Little Ones).  Those of you at the talk will remember that it all starts with fostering a love of stories and learning to see those stories all around us.  There are so many stories unfolding outside if we would take the time to actually get out there in that open space with unstructured time to see them!

So besides the obvious benefit to you as a mom, I thought I would give you some support from recent studies for the benefits to your child...physical, mental, emotional & spiritual benefits. 

Physical, Mental & Emotional:

·       Exercise in a natural environment is shown to have greater benefits than in an artificial one (Peninsula College of Medicine, 2011) – climb trees, walk ravines, go on a neighborhood walk…

·       Several experimental studies in recent years show mounting evidence for the cognitive benefits of exercise (Exercise for Children: The Cognitive Benefits, Dewar).  Research consistently shows aerobic exercise boosts BDNF for brain cell growth, stimulates new neurons and genes for brain plasticity.  It can give children better focus and control.  Many tests show that children actually perform better in all kinds of cognitive areas when they are active.  It is also shown that ADHA kids may have better self-control as a result of exercise.  Apparently there is a caveat—it doesn’t show to work as well with forced exercise; it has to be voluntary and FUN to reap the benefits:

Structured activities—like team sports or dance lessons—may be fine options. But so are nature walks, tree-climbing, roller-skating, and playing hide-and-seek.  In fact, play-like exercise is good for the brain. Perhaps the most effective exercise for children is free, unstructured, physical play.

·       These same findings are corroborated in other research says David Elkind (Can We Play?, 2008) who emphasizes the importance of physical play for children’s learning and development.  The pressure has ratcheted for parents who are trying to make schooling choices for their children and are concerned by the oft repeated notion that their child will be behind and won’t be ready for kindergarten without the push of academic preschool.  That is what some in the education industry maintain, but what does early childhood development research show?

Spending one third of the school day in physical education, art, and music improved not only physical fitness, but attitudes toward learning and test scores. These findings echo those from one analysis of 200 studies on the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning, which also suggests that physical activity promotes learning. In recent years, and most especially since the 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, we’ve seen educators, policy makers, and many parents embrace the idea that early academics leads to greater success in life. Yet several studies by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and colleagues have compared the performance of children attending academic preschools with those attending play-oriented preschools. The results showed no advantage in reading and math achievement for children attending the academic preschools. But there was evidence that those children had higher levels of test anxiety, were less creative, and had more negative attitudes toward school than did the children attending the play preschools. So if play is that important, why is it disappearing?
I included a couple of stanzas from a poem entitled, JUST PLAY to consider.

When you see me combing the bushes for bugs, or packing my pockets with choice things I find, don’t pass it off as JUST PLAY. For you see, I am learning as I paly.  I may be a scientist some day.

When you asked me what I did in school today and I say, 'I just played.' Please don’t misunderstand me. For you see, I am learning as I play. I am learning to enjoy and be successful in my work. Today I am a child and my work is play.

Anita Wadley, 1974.
While researching for my talk, I found this wonderful article, “Kids with autism benefit from outdoor classroom” by Andrea Gordon, 2013.  It tells of Kindergarten teacher, Maia Crowther, who was inspired to implement an Outdoor Classroom Project at her school.  She tells the story of how this happened and the amazing results for both her students and the kindergarten classes for autistic children they partnered with!

[Crowther] says she’s never seen young students so motivated and engaged. After she instigated the outdoor classroom project last fall, the two full-day kindergarten classes took turns using the space every day. Each also partnered with one of the two kindergarten classes for children with autism. They spent at least 75 minutes a day outside, sun, rain or snow, and much longer in warm weather. On a typical day of the school year, more than 30 children can be found pouring and scooping at the water centre, playing dress-up, making mud pies or studying ants. In winter, they make ice sculptures, snow angels and learn about melting and freezing. When the rain comes, it’s all about puddles and worms.  Mounting evidence shows hands-on outdoor learning boosts physical activity, mental health, brain power and attention. It also enhances learning by building on children’s curiosity and firsthand observations. 

Some other research suggests that eliminating play as is the trend in preschools and elementary schools may have serious ramifications on a child’s emotional development as well states Professor of Psychology William Crain (Education for Meaning and Justice, 2010).  One study found that not only does “preschool play enhance cognitive capacities such as problem solving and creativity, [but also] the ability to see things from others' perspectives”. And “The American Academy of Pediatrics worries that children who are deprived of free play become depressed and stressed out”.
Another important issue for playing with your children is the benefit to your relationship with your child and family. A guide titled, “The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development”, from the MSU education department talks about the family relationships that are developed in playing together.

Play connects children with their imagination, their environment, their parents and family and the world.  Parental involvement in a child's world of play is not only beneficial for the child but is extremely beneficial to the parent. Playing with children establishes and strengthens bonds that will last forever. Parent-child play opens doors for the sharing of values, increases communication, allows for teachable moments and assists in problem solving. Playtime provides opportunities for the parent and child to confront and resolve individual differences, as well as family related concerns and issues. Finally, it allows the parent to view the world through the eyes of a child once again.

In Part II & III, I'll talk more about the Spiritual impact of being outside with your children and give you some resources to inspire you to be outside!