Movement is essential to brain development for young children and child care programs are expected to include gross motor movement daily either outdoors or indoors. We want children to run, jump, skip and dance!
Climbing structures, swings, and wheeled toys are common outdoor options to encourage gross motor play. However the outdoor playground equipment has limited seasonal use – too dangerous to use in the winter due to ice and frozen surfacing and too hot to play on in the summer.
Many programs are removing their climbing structures and swings because of the limited seasonal use and the ongoing cost of maintaining a fall surface. They are designing an outdoor learning space that incorporates purposeful movement so kids can be active year around.
Look at the Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms and see how purposeful movement is built into the outdoor activity centers. These spaces provide safe, interesting, easily maintained and supervised environments that help children grow in all developmental areas.
An open space with gentle slopes give kids a chance to run, roll or slide in any season. The gentle slopes help children develop core strength, visual spatial skills, and balance.
Full body and core strength activity can be achieved with balance beams, jumping stumps and bulky building materials such as “tree cookies”, stones, and long branches. Children lift, push, pull, carry, and reach with these open ended materials that also stimulate imagination and cooperation. Large items may take 2 or more children to move from one place to another.
A designated dirt digging area lets children use complex muscle groups without disturbing other active play. It can become a snow shoveling area in the winter.
An outdoor music and movement area can inspire children to dance, leap, squat, roll and wiggle. This purposeful movement also serves to regulate emotions.
Durable fabric hammocks can provide a safe swinging experience. They also provide an inclusive experience for all children without special equipment.
Pathways through plantings such as native grasses and edible shrubs like hazelnuts or aronia berries can become places for children to stoop, twist, reach, pull, jump and crawl through – purposeful movement by design. Flowering plants attract beneficial insects like butterflies enhancing the children’s science learning. Deep rooted plantings absorb and redirect spring flood water.
One program planted strawberries on the roof of the playhouse where children were inspired to reach and stretch. Children learned nurturing skills by taking care of the plants, developed social skills and gained a sense of mastery by growing their own tasty snacks!
Each of these design elements provide multiple functions and require little maintenance or expense once they are established. Children are experiencing gross motor movement, learning and fun at the same time!
What purposeful movement can you incorporate into your outdoor play space?
Kristi Cooper, Certified Nature Explore Educator and Design consultant, and Human Science Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach