Do you remember valuing outdoor play over staying indoors and watching videos or TV? How did we become grown-ups who may have had enough of this inconvenient, dangerous, exhausting-to-shovel and chilly white stuff? Children have another view of snow that is insurrectionary. Prepared with layers of wool, hats and mittens, they burst out of doors and embrace the snow, playing with ease. While this natural inclination is celebrated in Waldorf schools, many schools don’t value “recess” and the opportunity has largely disappeared. At HVWS, being outdoors is an essential, integral part of the curriculum.
We asked Sunflower Early Childhood Teacher Isabel Gandara about the experience, and she led us towards important developmental reasons for preserving recess and experiencing the outdoors in all kinds of weather.
“For me the importance of playing outside is about encouraging creativity and maintaining a relationship with nature,” Isabel said. “But I think it is also very important for the children to develop their four lower senses: life, balance, movement, and touch. These give them confidence, awareness of themselves in space and spatial orientation. It is really about helping them to develop their physical body as a foundation for emotional and cognitive learning. Later on they can meet the world with certainty, trust, and confidence as adults.”
We want the dreamy young child to eventually plant their feet firmly on the ground. Yet how can they find the ground with their little bodies folded into a big overstuffed sofa, or their feet treading a perfectly level, flat floor? How much better, and how much more fun it is to clamber over giant logs, bounce on a bent sapling, feel the rigid layer of ice, or splash in a puddle that was not there before the recent storm? How is it that water can taste and feel almost hot when poured into the snack-time mug as tea, but be chilly, icy, or slushy when experienced outdoors? It simply must be experienced.
Sometimes the experience comes unexpectedly. “Playing outside, children learn to take risks,” Isabel pointed out. “During winter, they develop more movement skills, since it is harder to walk in the snow.” There are unexpected tumbles and the developing child may attempt a maneuver that is a little tricky. With proper safety guidance, these tumbles become fewer as confidence and a child’s physical knowing replace inexperience.
During the outside time, basic social skills are developed. Two children might set upon an available sled at once. With guidance from the teacher, the children can discover their options. Will they take turns, sled together, or alternate pulling the other on the magic carpet? Recently several classes mounted a hill in Newtown and had an old-fashioned sledding party. This is the stuff of which memories are made.
Outdoor winter play also encourages socio-dramatic play. Interacting with the Early Childhood natural playground structure, the playhouse, and endless creative opportunities that snow-structures can present, children will eventually move from playing side by side without interacting, to developing conversations and creative, imaginative, social experiences. “You be the fox and I’ll be the farmer,” says the child. “See that pile of snow over there? That’s the chicken coop…”
The mysteries and joys of nature are easily discovered in all weather too. On a cold, windy overcast day, one’s limits are tested. Compared to yesterday’s milder weather, the child now experiences the contrast. If properly bundled up, the sensation of prickly cheeks, or one’s body resisting the wind can be exciting. Nature’s lessons appear too. Where do the animals go when it is so cold? The next day, when the foul weather has passed, when the sun is bright and the temperature rises, what a joy it is to hear the spring song of the chickadee. The time for singing has come.
Success with playing out of doors in all weather depends on reliable, appropriate clothing, a spirited adult attitude that the child can imitate, and responsible supervision. Let’s avoid this recent New Yorker cartoon scenario, where a father is getting his kids ready to go outside, and one child says to his mother, “Daddy’s taking us out to buy a snowman!”