Getting Our Students Outside Every Day, Part 1

I spent eight years teaching at an Anabaptist school; and to be honest, the least favorite part of my winter days was outdoor recess. Granted, after I got all my first graders as well as myself bundled up, the sun and crisp air DID feel refreshing. Upon returning to the classroom after twenty to thirty minutes, the rosy glow on my students’ cheeks showed that the moments outside had not been in vain. Still, even though I could see that outdoor recess had been good for us all, I continued to see outdoor recess as more of a discipline than a joy.

Most of the school patrons understood that outdoor recess was a normal part of the school day. They sent their children to school dressed in warm layers. Occasionally, there was that parent who would request that their child remain indoors due to asthma or a head cold. But for the most part, the parents seemed supportive of having their child play outside.

While I was teaching in the public school setting as well as helping at a community daycare I learned that teachers in America are not permitted to allow outdoor recess when temperatures dropped below a certain point. In fact, there was much that was not permitted outdoors. If the sidewalks or blacktop had ice, the children needed to stay off of them. Children playing around could lead to accidents with broken limbs which could lead to lawsuits. Also, much of the recess equipment such as monkey bars, balance beams, and sea-saws were off limits until a certain age for fear that a child might injure themselves. There were strict rules on the playgrounds that varied from “no going up slides” to “no running.” The teachers were not trying to punish but rather to keep accidents from happening that could end up getting themselves or the school in trouble.

Then I started having children of my own while living in an urban environment. For us, outdoor play needs to happen at the park, on our sidewalks, or within our tiny backyard. Because my boys both love the outdoors, we try to get out regularly. It is common for us in both the cold months and the hot summer months to be the only children at the park that we frequent. These days, we rarely pass other children on the sidewalks. And we live in a city where the children are not able to attend public school in-person due to COVID-19 concerns, which means that they must all be staying inside their homes or at a daycare.

America’s View of the Outdoors in Contrast with Other Countries

Counties within the Scandinavia such as Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have even colder temperatures than America but respond quite differently to outdoor activities than American teachers do. In Finland, students typically get a fifteen-minute break after every lesson which ends up being a total of approximately 75 minutes of break time a day.  Many teachers in Scandinavia use the school yard and nearby nature areas to teach math, science, history, and other subjects on a regular basis. According to the Danish, the concept of teaching students outside the school is called “udeschole,” or outdoor school. They see it as a way for students to build a relationship with their environment and get in contact with nature during the school day. According to Anders Szczepanski, the director of the National Center of Environmental and Outdoor Education at Linkoping University in Sweden, “Studies show that if you alternate outdoor and indoor learning, and the teacher is prepared, you get good results.” (141-142)

Scandinavian parents, too, seem to see messy, wild, outdoor play as perfectly natural. Going outside in any type of weather with their children is probably a reflection of a belief that being able to cope with all types of weather will make their children more resilient. (p.192) No weather is so bad or a mud puddle so big that cannot be conquered with good coveralls, waterproof mittens, and fleece-lined boots. With the proper gear, both adults and children see going outdoors as the norm rather than the exception to the rule.

A Call to Reflection and Evaluation

Is “indoor children” a growing trend within America? And if so, are we unknowingly having the children within our own families and schools spending more time indoors than they did a hundred years ago? And if so, is this a trend that we want to embrace as Anabaptists? Most of my research within this article is due to McGurk’s research in her book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather. Stay tuned for a following post on both the benefits of the outdoors on a child’s health and body development. Sources:

MCGURK, L. K. (2018). THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BAD WEATHER: A Scandinavian mom’s secrets for raising healthy, … resilient, and confident kids. SIMON & SCHUSTER.

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