Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children


It’s summer and NAEYC’s publication, Young Child, has a compelling and seasonally appropriate article about the history of outdoor play.

Written by Joe L. Frost, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and John A. Sutterby, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the article starts with this poetic quote from Frost’s 2012 article “Evolution of American Playgrounds:”

“Good play environments have magical qualities that transcend the here and now, the humdrum, and the typical. They have flow qualities — qualities that take the child to other places and other times. They are permeated with awe and wonder, both in rarity and in imaginative qualities. Bad play environments are stark and immutable, controlled by adults, lacking resiliency and enchantment. Few dreams can be spun there, and few instincts can be played out. The wonders of nature, the delights of creating are all but lost for children restricted to such places.”

Simply put, the authors say in their Young Child article, outdoor play isn’t a luxury it’s a necessity.

“As history scholars, we know that our current efforts are grounded in a movement that began almost two centuries ago.”

Among the historical highlights:

The kindergarten movement:

“Friedrich Froebel— influential 19th century German scholar who recognized the uniqueness of childhood, created materials for playful learning, and coined the term kindergarten—emphasized the role of the garden and the importance of nature in development. He believed that humans and nature are connected at a spiritual level, and so outdoor games were an important part of his concept of kindergarten.”

The imperative of parks:

“During the 1840s, early social reformers began to realize that the unplanned growth of cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had negative consequences for children. Large cities at this time were very crowded and dangerous due to heavy traffic. This led to the first major public park project in the United States: Central Park in New York City.”

The playground movement:

“…playgrounds filled with heavy manufactured equipment dotted cities. These supervised playgrounds were intended to protect immigrant children from the hazards of playing in the streets and to help them become healthy American citizens.”

The playground safety movement:

“Under pressure from concerned citizens, the United States Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1973. The commission published A Handbook for Public Playground Safety (USCPSC 1981) in two volumes and has continued to make periodic revisions.

“Playground safety advocates worked to remove unsafe playground equipment from playgrounds and improve guidelines for surfacing materials.”

 “Unfortunately, as the regulations were updated and became more extensive, concern for playground safety clashed with community initiatives and children’s needs.”

“Now,” the authors write, “coinciding with the international play-in-nature movement, playground professionals are searching for the best solutions to safety and legal issues in playground development and use.”

The adults are finding a better balance between safety and engaging outdoor opportunities.

The authors conclude:

“Integrated whole child approaches, indoor and outdoor playful learning, built and natural playgrounds, and hands-on projects must keep pointing the way to healthy and happy child development.”

In other words, children need the outdoors’ magic.