The New York Times has a story about Germany’s outdoor preschools. The article cites research I’ve talked about here, like the book Last Child in the Woods. The article also features a Ph.D. dissertation from 2003 by Peter Häfner at Heidelberg University that shows that graduates of German forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development. (I assume he has a book deal by now.)
Would my kids be good to feature in his book? They lived on a farm when they were younger. (This is the first time I’ve written that in past tense. It’s a little hard.)
Clearly that’s a great time to live on a farm. I never worried about playing outside or connecting to the seasons. I just worried if they fed the goats and gathered the eggs. They also spent tons of time on their computers. And it turns out that most research about kids and screens (there is a lot and it’s all shoddy) says that the only thing screens do that is bad for kids is correlate to not going outside.
So the research about education says kids should be outside, and the research about screen time says kids should be outside. Okay. So putting little kids in classrooms is stupid. They should either be outside or they should be glued to a screen. Nowhere does research say little kids should sit in chairs and learn math and reading.
But what about older kids? How old are kids when the research about playing outside doesn’t apply? I remember when we took a trip to Seattle, it was so easy to put the kids on a jungle gym. Now they’d scoff. Now the kids are older and we live in a city and they go outside to walk the dog or walk to friends and tutors, but the only play they’re doing is inside. So sometimes I think that I should give the kids vitamin D because they’re not outside enough.
Adult play helps people keep their brains from deteriorating: Scrabble, Sudoku, Solitaire – anything you do just because it’s fun is a way to keep yourself healthy as an adult. Stuart Brown, from the National Institute of Play, says “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around,” he says. “You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”
So being completely focused on goals and not having any fun makes life not fun.
That’s a hard argument to sell to someone like me, who thinks meeting goals is fun. But I’m trying to stay open-minded, and I try to be silly with the boys, even if I sometimes have to suspend reality (it’s past bedtime, we have no money, etc) in order to do it.
But I’m wondering about the outdoors. I looked pretty hard for research that shows that playing outdoors is good for adults. I found that even Harvard Medical School had a tough time finding research that says adults should be outside.
So I signed us up for the health club. I’m going to lift weights and use the rowing machine. The boys are going to play basketball. And none of it will be outside. And they’ll spend the rest of the day being sedentary, probably. But maybe sending kids outside to play when they were young is enough. Because researchers have found that deep thinkers are naturally more sedentary than other people.