Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Daycare Kids and Outdoor Play

Here is an interesting blog entry from Dr. Laura about why daycare workers don't have kids playing outdoors much. Dr. Laura's blog post inspired me to blog my thoughts on this topic.

Why Day Care Kids Don't Play Outside

I recall my nephew with Autism was a problem for the daycare workers at one point because the baby and toddler normal desire to put things into their mouths stage lasted longer than typical for him. One day when my brother went to pick his son (age 2.5) up early and found him strapped in a stroller, with no one around him or interacting with him at all, outside. He asked what was going on and they said they couldn't keep him from eating the wood chip mulch so they would strap him to a swing or stroller and leave him there. They said it was a safety issue and that was what they did with the boy every day. My brother had no idea that was even happening, they didn’t tell him he was eating mulch and they didn’t tell him that they were restraining him and leaving him alone off to the side of the playground. My brother was horrified. That was the impetus for he and his wife to find a new group daycare facility for him.

I have a feeling the worry over the types of shoes or the outerwear the children wear is a liability issue. It is true; flip-flops are dangerous to run in, especially in wood chips, those shoes are tripping hazards. If a child without a coat goes out in the cold they leave themselves open for criticism from the parents, the very ones who didn't dress the kid right.

The fact of the matter is that it is not easy to keep an eye on a lot of children of young ages, even on a fenced in playground. It is impossible to push them all on the swing, help them down the slide, and supervise the climbing of the ladder and so on.

All children should be playing outside. Very young children need close adult supervision when playing outdoors, climbing up high ladders, when climbing the rope ladder, when learning to use the monkey bars, and they need a push on the swing until age 4 or 5 when they finally can propel themselves independently. The fact of the matter is that the adult to child ratio at daycare is too high for that type of close supervision and helping the children. Additionally having children at daycare mixed only with their same exact age mates puts them in a position of being around a lot of other kids but ones who are as incompetent as they are. If this were more of a family model with kids of mixed ages, or a neighborhood model, being around kids of a range of ages, the kids could help each other.

Dr. Laura was referring to playing outdoors at daycare facilities. Those usually are fenced in places with plastic, metal or wooden playscapes. Children also need time outdoors, running free in nature. Children should be playing on grass. Children should be in wild places, whether it is on an empty city lot with wildflowers and grasses or in the woods or in meadows. Children should be outdoors to experience rain, puddles, and mud. Children should splash in water such as brooks, streams, ponds, lakes or the ocean. Children should experience a sandy beach. Children should be able to run free in their neighborhood, to feel it is their territory and their home place, that they are familiar with and feel safe in. Children should walk and run and skip and hop. Children should be riding their bikes.

Daycare facilities who do allow outdoor play are still a poor representation of what children need. They don’t just need fresh air and playscapes, they need the wild places and to explore their own neighborhood and to ride bikes and to feel free. I wonder if the children who only get to be outdoors in the fenced in play yards of daycare facilities feel like caged animals? How can one not liken them to caged pets or zoo animals, trapped in and locked into a facility all day long, seeing the outdoors from what is nothing more than a big cage?

Yes, daycare is an artificial environment.

If you don't believe that daycare has problems, read the book "Ships Without a Shore: America's Undernurtured Children" by Anne Pierce PhD (read my book review here) or for a longer book just on daycare, "Day Care Deception: What the Child Care Establishment Isn't Telling Us" by Brian C. Robertson.

A book about the importance of children being in nature is “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. If you need ideas on how to explore nature with your children, check out the new book “I love dirt! 52 activities to help you & your kids discover the wonders of nature” by Jennifer Ward.

Voices From the Education Reform World

In the education theory world, about one hundred years ago, both Rudolph Steiner, who created the Waldorf (private) schools and Charlotte Mason, who created a new home education method to replace what she thought unacceptable academic conditions in schools--both recommended that children spend time outdoors and specifically in nature every day. Both felt that children should experience nature in all types of weather, in rain, snow, and in the cold. Yes, they should be dressed appropriately and kept warm and have a change of clothes if necessary when they returned indoors, but they should go out daily. Charlotte Mason still inspires many homeschooling parents today.

What is Happening in My Neck of the Woods

I’m thinking now about my homeschooled children, and the children we know with stay-at-home mothers. This whole discussion has me wishing again that the children of our neighborhood were allowed free reign to play with each other outdoors for hours on end without adult supervision, like I did when I was a child.

For now I have to rely mostly on a paid experiential nature class to get my children in the wild on a weekly basis, with other children. This is what we have come to with this younger generation, paying for a class so our children can have certain experiences. Another example of this is a local farm charges families so that the children can go to the farm, hang around there with the animals, observe farm life and do light farm chores. Yes, the parents PAY the farm so that the elementary grade children can do (light) farm labor. Unbelievable.

Books Mentions in this Blog Post

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Mike L said...

I'd expand your criticism to include "play-based preschools." Their environments can't match a child's neighborhood, and what's worse, kids are only there for a few hours a week. What about the dozens of hours kids are at home?

Neighborhood play is the key for children. I run a family of online communities called Playborhood, devoted to encouraging parents to let their kids play outside in their neighborhoods.

Mike Vandeman said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier -- An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods -- Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially,,, and

Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

christinemm said...

Dear Mike Vandeman,
Wow, thank you for your thoughts.

I have read "Last Child in the Woods" yet. I bought it, but I have not yet read it.

I really appreciate your thoughts. I too think that nature needs us to stay away. Treading lightly and not harming nature is of course important.

I often see young children damaging nature. When my oldest was six, at a Little League picnic, children unsupervised (young too) were off tearing branches off a pine tree on the school grounds. They then were peeling bark and whacking the tree with the torn off branches. None of the other parents cared. I tried to get them to stop but none cared to follow what an authority figure said.

Last year in Cub Scout Day Camp the them was detectives and clues (Cub Scout Detectives). Each got a little magnifying glass to look for insects with. Well, in each Den there were multiple boys using them to burn live insects with. I thought it was just my group and was working in my group to put a stop to it. Yet they had to do camp-wide announcements, multiple times to try to get the kids to stop.

I also gave a lecture to all my Den because there was a dragonfly that one kid caught and pulled a wing off. In a small group they proceeded to pull all the wings off and one of the legs was broken. It was still alive. I tried to talk some empathy into them and talk about not hurting the creatures. One begged me to kill it and to put it out of its misery. We debated this. I decided to let it sit there on a rock and maybe a bird would eat it if it found it alive. Two kids thought I was cruel for that. I was angry at the ones who tortured the thing in the first place.

It is true not all interaction with nature by children in groups or unsupervised leads to good things. It seems too that some kids think nature is there JUST to exploit and destroy for what they consider to be fun.

Lastly I used to mountain bike in the woods when it first came out in the 1980s. What I liked about being in nature with the bike was not about nature appreciation which I got from other endeavors. I liked just being off of the road and not in contact with cars and bad drivers, not being with rush hour commuters and so on. I enjoyed breathing woods air, fresh, not car exhaust. However you do concentrate so much on handling the bike and staying safe that you can't just enjoy nature such as when on an easy hike. When whizzing down a hill or puffing to go up a steep rocky hill you can't notice details in a wildflower's blossom or spot creatures or even look around much--your eyes have to stay on the trail and on the bikers around you too.

Shyloh said...

Thank you for this post. It's nice to see some people who still have a parenting instinct. When I was a kid I was discouraged from play and even in grade school the teacher had a choice to restrict us from brake time play, and I'm sure you can assume that means I had a couple bears for teachers! Later I attended private schools.