Literacy Outdoors!

By Molly Alexander

As the weather finally begins to get warmer and the sun sets later each day, here at Family Reading Partnership we are thinking about the connections between playing outdoors and literacy development!

There is a lot of talk right now about COVID-19 learning loss, especially reading skills in the early grades. Now more than ever we see the need for children to experience literacy learning outside of the classroom, and at the same time we recognize the need for parents and children to have time to de-stress amidst all the challenges of this past year. We are here to remind you that spending time playing outdoors can actually be beneficial to your child’s language and literacy development. 

Did you know that the gross motor skills that children develop when they swing from the monkey bars or climb trees form the basis for the fine motor skills that they will use to hold a writing utensil? When children move their bodies outdoors they develop physical skills that are actually stepping stones on the path to literacy development. You don’t need to have fancy playground equipment or anything special- just time outside running, jumping, swinging, and moving!

Spending time outdoors provides endless opportunities for speech and language learning. When you’re with your child outdoors you can support her language development by talking about what she is doing. For example, if she jumps high or runs fast or touches a bug gently, all the language you use to describe her actions will become concrete vocabulary words that she learns within the context of her experience. Learning in this way leads to long-lasting word comprehension because it is rooted in meaningful lived experience.

When playing outside, you can also engage in dialogue about the natural world around you. For example, “The wind is blowing” or “The mud feels sticky and gooey.” Ask your child what he notices and feels. Your child’s experiences outdoors can lead to language development that would not happen indoors because the ever-changing outdoor environment provides vast potential for actions, observations, sensory perceptions, challenges, feelings, and imagination. The sense of freedom and the active learning that take place outdoors can open a child’s mind to making new cognitive connections. Best of all? It’s joyful.

When it comes to how we learn, a child’s well-being, and a caregiver’s, is fundamental. Research shows that time outdoors improves attention span and reduces stress, leading to an optimal state of mind for learning. With all the stress over learning loss and all the pressure to catch up, it might be reassuring to remember that sometimes the best path forward is getting back to the basics. After all, the original meaning of kindergarten was children’s garden. Freidrich Froebel founded the first kindergarten in 1837 at a time when early childhood education did not yet exist, well before the advent of standardized testing and reading levels. Froebel believed that very young children had the ability to develop cognitive and emotional skills through education. However, the original concept was learning through active, hands-on experience with a teacher as a loving and attentive guide. So we hope you will get outside to connect, move, talk, play, and enjoy the moment- knowing that you are supporting your child’s learning at the same time!

If you’re looking for more ways to connect with literacy outdoors, our Story Walks are here for you! Take a walk through a book in parks within Tompkins County, NY. Children’s book pages mark the way along a path you can explore with your child. Family Reading Partnership just updated two of our books in time for spring and we hope you will check them out:

Daniel’s Good Day by Micha Archer is now on display in Enfield, located behind Enfield Elementary School starting in the apple orchard to the right of the school. Daniel’s neighbors always say, “Have a good day!” as he walks to Grandma’s house. Daniel decides to ask each of them, “What makes a good day for you?” He gets answers that reflect something important about each of their lives, and illuminate the value of the little things in life that give us joy. Archer’s mixed media illustrations create a vivid depiction of a lively community, and the pictures and text come together beautifully to tell the story of Daniel’s day.

Flower Garden by Eve Bunting is now on view in Dryden at the Jim Schug Trail, which can be accessed next to the Dryden Agway. Filled with excitement, a young girl and her dad pick out flowers and potting mix at the store and bring them home on the bus to create a window box as a birthday surprise for Mom. The rhyming text bounces along cheerfully and the bright oil paintings capture the vibrancy of a flower garden, even a small one.

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