In praise of playgrounds

When Garrett Elementary relocated temporarily last year while its own building is being replaced, some students encountered something new to them: a hopscotch court.

 

"They had never played hopscotch before," said third-grade teacher Josephine Lane. "I used to play hopscotch as a kid, so I was amazed that they hadn't."

Hopscotch isn't the only outdoor game that's becoming a lost art with the younger generation. Outdoor activities in general are losing appeal.

The results, experts say, are not good. Rising obesity rates, flat student achievement, increased behavior problems, and even a shorter life span are among the outcomes of America's increasingly "indoor childhood," according to "Back to School: Back Outside," a report recently released by the National Wildlife Federation.

"Back-to-school time is traditionally time to come indoors and 'hit the books,' but to foster the focus and motivation needed to succeed academically, kids need to include outdoor time as part of their daily routine, either at school or home or both," said Kevin Coyle, the federation's vice president for education and training and the author of the report. "The evidence in favor of nature as an educational tool is compelling but may be underappreciated by teachers and parents."

It's not underappreciated at Garrett, but the combination of high-stakes testing and the school's temporary location next to Langford Middle School on Walton Way while its own building on Eisenhower Drive is replaced have limited how much outdoor time pupils get.

"I know how important it is," Principal Paula Kaminski said. "You've got to exercise. Those large muscle movements feed your brain. You cannot stay still."

Playground space is limited at Garrett's current location, but the replacement building is scheduled to be ready by March.

Lane is a big believer in getting her students outside as many days as possible.

"They are more restless when they don't get to go outside," she said. "They get frustrated.

The National Wildlife Federation report cites research concluding that children who play outside are more focused in class, cause fewer disruptions and generally are healthier.

Carter Hargrove, 10, spends as much time outside as he can. The Garrett fifth-grader particularly enjoys riding his bicycle, but he said he'll do "almost anything" as long as it gives him an excuse to get out in the fresh air.

"I'm not one of those kids who plays video games," he said.

He agrees that spending time outside helps him concentrate when he's in the classroom.

Fourth-grader Miya Johnson isn't quite the fan of the outdoors that Carter is, but she does enjoy playing outside. But sometimes other things get in the way.

"It's too hot, my mom has to go to school, my mom has to go to practice for church," said Miya, 9. "Sometimes I play computer games, but I've got to do my homework first. You can go to somebody's house, and it's too hot outside, so you're sitting up in the house just bored."

Lane said most of her pupils see recess as a reward for doing well in class, but some are reluctant to play outside.

"Some see there is no mandatory running of 100-yard dashes, and they don't know what to do," Lane said. "And some even take a book outside to read. I tell them to go play awhile before they read the book."

The National Wildlife Federation, the National Football League and other organizations recommend that children play outside at least 60 minutes a day. That doesn't have to come all at once, but can be a combination of recess and physical education at school, youth sports, pickup games with friends in the neighborhood, or even simply playing catch with a friend or parent.

The federation encourages teachers and parents to both play roles in encouraging children to spend time outside.

"It's ironic that time outside during the school day has been reduced to allow more time for standardized test preparation when it's that very time outdoors that could create higher test scores," Coyle, of the federation, said.

Lane doesn't need convincing. "We've done stuff like math and science activities outside," she said. "We've got this makeshift play area where they write sentences between themselves in the ground. It's another way to do it besides pencil and paper. Things like that help the concepts sink in a little bit deeper."

Carter, the fifth-grade outdoorsman, has some advice for his indoor-loving peers.

"I would tell them, if you want to get your muscles and bones stronger, you need to get outside and let your energy out."

What Parents Can Do

The National Wildlife Federation offers the following tips to help get your children to spend more time outside:

TRADE SCREEN TIME for green time. Limit use of electronic media and encourage your children to just "go outside and play." The federation has prepared an outdoor family fun guide especially for fall full of easy ideas to squeeze fresh air and green spaces into your family's busy routine at www.nwf.org/familyfun.

TEAM UP WITH OTHER PARENTS to create outdoor co-ops, taking turns each week watching the kids while they play outdoors.

DON'T OFFER RIDES to school as often in safe areas. Let your kids walk and encourage other parents in the neighborhood to do the same with their kids.

BE AN ADVOCATE for outdoor time at your children's school. Suggest this for a topic at a PTA meeting and let your school's principal know how you feel.

VOLUNTEER SOME TIME to green your child's school grounds with more trees and natural vegetation.

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