Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 2

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

This week we were introduced to Joey, six, and his teacher, Miss Smith. They were about to go outside into their kindergarten’s traditional playground. We then met Mikeyla, also six, and her teacher, Miss Hewitt. They were about to go into their school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

Today we’ll focus on Joey and Miss Smith. Next week we’ll revisit Mikeyla and Miss Hewitt.

Our hope is that these stories inspire discussion about the influence outdoor environments likely play in a young child’s developing self-image.  Also for consideration is the image of children, held by the teacher, that each environment supports.


Joey had been bullied at recess the day before, and was anxious about going outside. Miss Smith was preparing to keep an eye on both boys.

boy on playgroundToday, Joey’s heightened state of alertness overrides his usual excitement over going outdoors. He feels vulnerable. His choices of activities range from playing ball, to running around, to using the playground equipment. He has to think of choosing whichever activity was furthest from the other boy.

Although these activity choices are the same every day, they are now limited by his need to avoid the child who pushed him yesterday. Joey also knows that he needs Miss Smith’s protection while on the playground. Whatever he chooses to do, he’ll have to keep her whereabouts in mind, in case he needs her.

Like many young children, Joey gets very little outdoor time at home. Both parents work, so what outdoor time he gets at home is usually in his yard, or in those of his friends. He has not yet been exposed to a vegetable garden or played with loose parts in nature. His parents support his being in a safe outdoor space where he can be watched. Yet they don’t see play as learning, and don’t know how to recognize the educational potential of his time in the yard. Although he has been curious about bugs he finds in his yard, this curiosity isn’t supported in his busy home.

At the end of today’s recess period Joey was relieved that he hadn’t been bullied. He had kicked a ball with friends, and climbed on the play structure a bit. Yet he changed activities a few times when the child who had pushed him yesterday joined his group. Both his body, and his vigilance had been exercised.

Having the same limited outdoors activity choices every day at school, all of them physical, Joey associates learning with being indoors. Learning is not associated with nature, or with being outdoors. Also, because competition is easily fostered on traditional playgrounds, bullying is sometimes part of time outside. When on the playground, Joey sees adults as protectors, not as resources.

On her part, Miss Smith prepares for the duty of playground monitor by mentally running over the list of children to watch. Joey is one of them.

 In the primary schools of her childhood, Miss Smith experienced playgrounds similar to the one she supervised today. Twenty-five years ago playgrounds didn’t have safety surfacing, and the slides and climbing structures were separated, but playground play then and now was basically the same.

Besides school playgrounds and sports fields, Miss Smith’s sporadic connections with nature as a child were during yearly family vacations. Her significant memories from childhood include these times, yet otherwise the “outdoors” is only remembered in the context of sports or playgrounds.

Exercise and fresh air are the benefits Miss Smith sees for children during recess. Watching them engage in the same activities on the same equipment, day after day, has long since become boring for her. The children generally appear to be having fun, so she doesn’t question whether or not they are bored. Her responsibility is to monitor for behaviors and safety. Learning happens indoors.

Outdoors is where Miss Smith sees children as being their most authentic selves, where their true social nature is revealed. Children aren’t being directed during recess. They chose what to do. The little rivalries, along with the competitions and occasional bullying, are among standard behaviors of children left to their own devices. School is to civilize, as well as to educate. Miss Smith has reasonably developed this view of children after ten years of teaching and playground monitoring.

Next week, we’ll revisit Mikeyla and Miss Hewitt.