Thursday 14 May 2015

City Children: Outdoors and Active

Royal Kids Day Care, Winnipeg (credit: Wendy Simonson)

I spent so many hours outdoors when I was a kid. There were long summer evenings playing hide and seek with all the other kids on my block, running from one garden to the next and only reluctantly going indoors when our parents’ calls became more and more insistent. There were hours sprawled on the grass, daydreaming. I walked to and from school with my friends and have fond memories of talking to a neighbour who was an avid gardener but was always willing to take a break and chat with us as we walked past.

Times have changed. We’ve moved indoors and are seduced by screens. The outside world has become a threatening place. Parents are reluctant to let their children play outside or walk to school or talk to strangers. And peer pressure makes it very difficult for parents to break with this model. 

Cam Collyer is the Director of Children’s Programs at Evergreen and has two boys ages 8 and 11. “My boys take the subway and roam the streets on their own,” he says, “but I’m questioned by my friends. Parents are accused of neglecting their children if the kids are independent.”

“We want our children to be independent, creative, curious, socially skilled problem-solvers,” Cam says. “But we aren’t giving them the tools. We need to put a stake in the ground and say that one of the signs of a healthy society is independent children.”

Many of us have precious childhood memories of independent outdoor adventures and momentum is building to design a future that captures the values that are important to us. “The support is there,” Cam says. “We just need to find a way to embrace it in a modern context.”

Lord Selkirk School, Winnipeg (credit: Wendy Simonson)

Outdoor Play & Learning
Outdoor play isn’t just for fun. It’s also an important tool for learning, socialization, emotional wellbeing, and physical fitness. When the body is active, there’s increased blood flow to the brain, which helps with memory and learning. Being outdoors engages the senses, providing a multi-sensory experience that improves retention by creating more pathways into the brain.

Historically, outdoor learning was the realm of field trips, but field trips are becoming less frequent. However, Cam Collyer believes that there’s an incredible wealth of outdoor play and learning opportunities in our school grounds. “Our urban outdoor areas can be so much more than playing fields and open expanses where children can blow off steam,” he says. “By looking at these outdoor areas through a design lens, we can meet a range of children’s developmental needs, create spaces that parents are proud of and feel secure about, and create new learning settings for teachers and students.”

“We haven’t recognized the beauty of what they can be,” he says. “The stimulus to learning can be very powerful with a flow of learning both inside and outside the routines of the classroom. Observation of daily changes, collections of natural materials, and active interaction with the natural and built environment can enhance or introduce any topic.”

But learning and physical activity aren’t inspired by flat expanses – you don’t play hide and seek in an empty field and you’re far more likely to have a picnic with friends on a shady park bench than in a mall parking lot.

Add a hill to your playground and you have a powerful magnet for young children to climb up and roll down. Add in a grove of trees, and you have a magic kingdom with mountains and forests.

A small English school ground provided an asphalt surface where the children played soccer. It was difficult to use the space for anything else for fear of being hit by a ball. A playground redesign transformed the schoolground. They caged the soccer area, which the kids loved because they didn’t have to chase the ball, and a pond and benches were placed beside it, creating an invitation for all sorts of different activities.

Community Spaces
School grounds aren’t the only under-utilized outdoor spaces in our cities. Our city parks have the potential to be social gathering places and wildlife habitats. A Toronto park has a tandoori bake oven, sharing culture through food. Other parks have open sand and water areas where children can play. Parks with community gardens are used more frequently, becoming social gathering places. Parks with barbecue pits host family celebrations as well as teenagers on a Friday night.

Different parks can play different roles, but they invariably create strong community bonds. “We have strong emotional attachments to our parks,” Cam says. “They provide communities with an identity and can lead to stewardship arrangements.”

Healthy by Nature 
The theme of this year’s NatureCity Festival is Healthy by Nature. Cam Collyer is one of two speakers at the festival’s keynote event at 7:30 pm, May 25, at the Broadway Theatre. Dr. Shimi Kang, author of The Dolphin Way, will explain why everyday contact with nature is critical to health and wellbeing, while Cam Collyer will provide practical advice on how we can adapt our urban environment to meet our needs.

Tickets for the keynote event can be purchased at McNally Robinson Booksellers, Wild Birds Unlimited, the Broadway Theatre box office and website, the Native Plant Society website, and at Wild About Saskatoon under the Keynote tab.

Cam will also be facilitating a workshop for school, parks and recreation officials. The workshop will provide professionals with an opportunity to dig into examples, ask detailed questions, and share ideas. Cam hopes that the workshop will inspire some Saskatoon projects and assist in developing Evergreen’s country-wide network of professionals, a valuable tool for community development: “Our professional network can share expertise and transmit ideas quickly without it being cookie cutter. Ideas can be adapted to local culture and conditions.”

Resources from Evergreen 
The Evergreen website provides a wealth of downloadable resource material. These include:
All Hands in the Dirt: A Guide to Designing and Creating Natural School Grounds
Experiential learning lesson guides available in the Teachers' Corner (e.g. Patterns Through the Seasons: A Year of School Garden Activities)
Keeping it Green: A Citizen’s Guide to Urban Land Protection
Native Plant Database
Outdoor Classroom newsletter