Now, at a time when parents are searching for the healthiest ways for children to interact with their peers, day cares and summer camps that embrace outdoor play are at the top of the list.
At Alpine Academy, a day care, preschool and summer camp in Oakland Charter Township, outdoor play is a priority for every age group. “With the recent pandemic, we are finding that outdoor play is a great way to keep children separated and breathing clean air,” says Cathy Hammond, founder and director of Alpine Academy. “We take as many opportunities as we can to go outside, including recess, snack, lunch and academics.”
Separating the groups
Because the children at Alpine spend the day in very small groups, they not only benefit from individualized attention, but there is less chance they will get sick. Toddlers are in groups of four, while 3-year olds are in groups of 10, and older children are in groups of 12. The children stay in these small groups both indoors and outdoors.
“Fortunately, we have several very large outdoor areas, so the teachers can keep each small group of children in its own space,” Hammond says.
Many places to play
Alpine has three big outdoor areas. “Our sandbox is the size of a very large living room. There’s even a sand kitchen, where the children pour and stir and pretend to bake the sand,” Hammond says. “We also have a paved riding track with dozens of lowrider bikes. There are stop signs and yield signs, and the kids have a great time riding around and around the loop. The big question each day is which bike will they ride?”
With toddler and regular swing sets and plenty of new Little Tikes equipment, including climbers, swings, slides, spinners, bouncers and a carousel, Alpine offers many opportunities for creative play. A shady area with picnic tables means children can eat a snack or lunch outside, and enjoy story time, circle time, art and science investigations every day.
In the summer, children plant tomatoes and cucumbers in a garden area and enjoy twice-weekly water play days. In the winter, they climb and slide a small sledding hill.
Benefits of outdoor play
Children are naturally drawn to outdoor play, but Hammond says that there are four main reasons spending time outside is healthy for a child’s development.
“Outside, they can practice their gross motor skills by jumping, running, throwing, twisting and climbing. Our teachers plan lessons that include activities for practicing those skills, like obstacle courses, bean bag throwing and mini croquet,” Hammond says.
Outdoor play also provides social engagement that is wholly different from that practiced in the classroom. “Children learn how to organize a game, join a game and invite others into a game. Inside, the children look to the teacher to organize, but outside, even though teachers are supervising, it’s up to the kids to make these sorts of decisions,” says Hammond. Kids practice how to choose teams, how to share when there are more kids than there are balls, and how to modify the game when it gets predictable. They make mistakes and learn how to fix them, Hammond says.
Nature provides abundant lessons. “Children are curious about how flowers work, how rain happens, how water flows. They wonder about the difference between a frog and a toad. Teachers plan ahead for such moments, doing the research and offering the materials that guide new learning,” says Hammond. By organizing in advance, early childhood teachers can capture the children’s passion and deepen understanding, she says.
Finally, it’s not just adults who experience rejuvenation from being outside. Children can shed expectations about work and behavior when they engage in outdoor pursuits. “It’s important to have time just to sit in the sand and pour, without having to be focused on sounding out words or learning something new,” Hammond says. “When a child is swinging, no one has expectations that they should be doing anything other than swinging. They can just relax, and the more relaxing they do, the more their brain cells fire up. There are a lot of reasons to get outside, but this is the most important one, not just for kids but for everybody.”
Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Alpine Academy welcomes toddlers and preschoolers from 1 to 5 years old year-round, and in the summer, adds children up to age 12. Learn more about Alpine Academy, and check out the long list of teacher-recommended activities for educational play at myalpineacademy.com.