Outdoor physical play in all four seasons
In Canada we have a special gift: four distinct seasons—seasons that are truly different from one another—and in each one, children can learn, grow and develop in different ways. So let’s take a walk through the four seasons and look at the opportunities for learning in each of them.
The first season is often the most challenging for parents (especially those who have moved here from warmer climates). Winter is cold, but it brings us the fabulous substances of snow and ice!
There are many different types of snow, like the soft fluffy snow that we can throw in the air, or the wetter, stickier snow that falls in gentle mounds on warmer days. Throwing light, dry snow upwards into the air is a large muscle movement that builds children’s gross motor control while putting joy all over their faces! With the wetter snow, children can also use their whole bodies to roll big snowballs, pick them up, and stack them into snow people or a snow fort. They can also use their hands and imaginations to see how the snow can stick together into all kinds of shapes.
Winter also brings ice. As adults, we’ve learned that ice is a dangerous nuisance, and we often tell children not to walk on it. Or we pick them up and carry them because we're worried that they're going to fall. But really what we need to do is teach children how to walk on the ice: to walk slowly when there may be ice on the sidewalk and if you have to walk over an icy patch, walk with small, shuffling steps (walk like a penguin!). When we teach this to children when they are young, they build brain pathways for this skill and grow up to be adults who can walk on ice without falling!
After we've had a chance to experience winter, we all look forward to spring—that magical time for warmer walks around the neighborhood looking at changes in nature, like how the trees are budding and flowers (especially dandelions) are starting to pop out of the ground.
Walking is a great form of physical activity! We can work our large muscles while also learning how to move safely through neighbourhoods by staying on sidewalks and crossing streets carefully.
A child does not have the skills to safely cross the street until they are nine years old due to their still-developing depth perception. Before that age, children cannot properly judge the distance between themselves and a moving car.
Another wonderful thing that happens in spring is that snow melts into puddles. Often adults tell children to stay out of the puddles, but puddles are for jumping into! Jumping is a physical skill that children learn—we can jump on one foot, we can jump on two feet; the force with which we jump creates a small splash or a big splash! Children are attracted to water and wet clothes will dry, so puddles present an opportunity to talk about actions, consequences, and decision-making. For example, tell your child it is okay to jump in puddles, but point out that they may get wet. Or, tell them they can walk in the puddle up to the line on their boot, but if they go past that line their feet will get wet. Some children will take the information and just dip their toes in the puddle, while others will jump full force using all of their strength to make the biggest splash possible! They get to consider information, make a decision, and accept the consequences of their actions, which supports development in their brain!
After spring comes summer, the season for spending lots of time outdoors! It’s time to climb trees, run in grass, watch bugs, and, of course, play on playgrounds! A tip for safe playground play is ensuring the equipment is the right size for your child’s size and skill level. The rule we tend to follow at Norwood is simply that we don't lift children onto equipment: if a child cannot climb up onto a piece of playground equipment on their own, the equipment is too big for them and could be a fall hazard. We encourage children to try and teach them how to get up on equipment independently, and once they have the physical ability to get up on their own, it’s safe for them to do so!
Safety is always very important, but so is letting children take some risks in their physical play. Risk taking in the early years involves recognizing physical strength and limitations (how high can I climb, how far can I jump?) and testing physical boundaries (how else or where else can I try this activity?). It increases children’s confidence by helping them understand what they can and cannot do just yet, how to set boundaries (how far they are willing to challenge themselves), and how to judge the physical challenges in their various environments.
Autumn, or fall, is that magical time of year when outdoor colours change and the leaves fall from the trees, covering the ground with that wonderful crunching texture! Now we can spend our time using our large muscles to rake up leaves and to jump in those piles of leaves and to throw leaves in the air! All of these activities support physical development. If you don’t have leaves of your own and want to build community, take your rake and lawn bags and offer to clean up a neighbour’s yard, or go to a local park and rake up the leaves there. Doing this supports social development as we care for our environment and our community. All you have to remember is to put on a light jacket and head out for some fun active play!
Outdoor play is very important for children’s physical development, particularly in the area of gross motor skills. It is also a wonderful way to learn about the world around us and how to navigate through it safely!