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Real Outdoor Free Play

by Leslie Layman

In preparation for Summer, Leslie Layman, coordinator of the Truman College Child Development Program, will discuss her favorite ideas for taking Math and and other STEAM ideas outside.

“When I think of these experiences and interactions, I wonder why we, as teachers, feel the need to intervene and explain so often.” –Nora Thompson

I love this quote. In it Nora is talking about allowing children the time and space to include children with disabilities in to their classrooms and play spaces, but I think it also serves  as lens through which to examine many of our interactions with young children.

Take a moment and put yourself on a happy, Summer day outdoors in your childhood, sometime before you turned eight. Take a breath and remember the smells, feel the sun warm on your bare skin. Picture what you are doing, where you are, and how you feel. You could have grown up on a rural farm or in a city apartment, but you can likely imagine a day like this.

A question, did you think of an adult? What were they doing? I would imagine that if you saw an adult there, they were playing with you rather than directing your play. Now think about some of the unique math skills you might have learned at this time. What angle does a basketball bounce of the hoop, how high can you swing and where will you land when you jump, how long is an afternoon? You probably cannot remember the exact moment you learned one of these or many other skills, but what I can be almost sure of is that it was not because an adult was teaching it to your directly.

As early childhood professionals, we all know that children need lots of uninterrupted time to play to learn and grow, but sometimes when I am out with my students, watching them interact with young children, I wonder if we have forgotten what this looks like. It’s very simple and very, very hard. We just have to let them be. Really, really leave the children alone, and put yourself in a spot where you can see what’s going on and where the children know where to find you. I routinely tell my adult students that leaving them alone to learn is ABSOLUTELY the hardest part of my job. Because I care, because I find them interesting, because I want to learn too, and because I feel that I should be “busy.” I promise that your children will learn math playing outside, cardinality, subitizing, basic operations, it’s out there. I also know that children must have the time to be in control and to be free.

Here are some things not to do when your children are outdoors for free play.

Ask Questions: I promise, you already do this enough. The next time you are trying to get something done, imagine someone next to you asking questions you both already know the answer to: what is it, what color, what’s it name, what’s it doing? It’s exhausting, stop.

Play with them: I LOVE to play with children, but there is a time and a place for it. You are big, you are powerful, and you have authority. When you enter children’s games you interrupt their ability both to build meaningful social interactions with each other, and to learn to solve conflicts independently. Use grown-up play sparingly.

Make Suggestions: You could put this over here, you could build this like this, try standing here. There’s no right way to play, so why should the teacher’s opinion trump that of the children’s? Give suggestions only when children are legitimately stuck and better yet when they have independently asked for help.

Entertain Them: If the kids are bored and whining to go inside or for you to be the “monster” in a chase game for the millionth time, ignore them. Boredom is a necessary state of being to build reflective thought, creativity, ingenuity, and motivation. Let it happen.

So what can you do? Here are some suggestions with what to do with your time when children are free playing outdoors.

Observe & Document: Really watch them. What can you learn about the children’s development, strengths, needs from how they move, play, and interact? Take pictures and notes on their learning. Write plans for how to expand on ideas they are independently exploring. You can turn a day of whole digging into an curriculum about holes. Where do they come from, who digs them, what’s in them?

Check in with your fellow teachers: This is a great time to have a chat about how you are doing and feeling and what needs to happen next.

Rest: Yes, you have to supervise the children, but other than their actual safety, let your brain and body be quiet for a moment. Feel the sun and wind, breathe.

Take a project outside: Need to get the knots out of the yarn or the rinse a million paint brushes? Bring them outside with you and get it done while the children are playing.

A Math Problem: If you find yourself with a real need to do busy work during outdoor free play try this: calculate how many minutes the children spend each day being told what to do and they amount of time they get to truly choose what they want to do. What’s the ratio?

But what about my director, families, co-teacher who doesn’t believe in free play? Here’s some easy to digest research to back you up.

34 Reasons Why Play Matters

Peter Gray TedTalk: Decline in Play

Anji Play: Self Determined Play as a Fundamental Right


7 Replies to “Real Outdoor Free Play”

  1. That was so reflective of what I have been through. People who don’t think children should truly choose what they can do with free play. Your article was refreshing.

  2. Loved the rest idea.Supervise – yes! But take the time to feel the sunshine or to feel the breeze.

  3. Wonderful article. I really appreciate the suggestion for teachers to observe and document the children during their free outdoor play.

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