“Play is the work of childhood” – See The Raleigh School’s Outdoor Classrooms

Research shows children need free time to play outside in order to grow. Here's why they need it now more than ever—plus how a local school has been implementing outdoor play in their lesson plans for almost 70 years.
Reading In The Window Frame

“There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted,” George Monbiot wrote in a 2012 article titled, “If Children Lose Contact With Nature They Won’t Fight For It.”

At a time when technology enters the lives of children before they can walk and free-play time is lost in favor of organized activities, it is more important than ever to provide children with varied opportunities to take advantage of outdoor environments.


Why Outdoor Play is Essential for Children

Research from a variety of organizations including The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that play and interaction with the natural environment is essential to children’s development.

The Raleigh School (TRS) has valued outdoor play since its 1952 inception when it was just a small group of local families seeking a progressive, secular preschool that focused on play and understood the importance of parental involvement. While the activities, spaces, and the equipment at The Raleigh School may have changed over the years, having children outside, engaging with the natural world and being active have always been mainstays of a Raleigh School education.

Today, the school serves 264 elementary students and 160 preschoolers.

The Raleigh School’s Director of School Programs Mary Golden says, “When so much of children’s time is structured, let’s ensure that we provide them with the feel of the outdoors that sparks the sense of wonder and awe that many of us had as children growing up in a world where the forest was our playground.”

“Play is the work of childhood,” she continues, “and it is the process of play that moves children forward in their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development and ignites their love for learning.”

Play Is The Work

Additionally, Golden says, “The opportunity to play and to be outside inspires children to move, think, discuss, experiment, fail, and recover.”

It also teaches them to engage, empathize, cooperate, collaborate, lead, and create. Thanks to unstructured playtime outside, these young children learn how to form relationships with one another—which is an essential skill for long-term happiness and success.


Inside Peek at The Raleigh School’s Outdoor Classrooms

Knowing the importance of interaction with nature, Raleigh School teachers have given a lot of thought to how to create natural outdoor play and learning environments for children at school.

When children are working in the school’s “outdoor classrooms,” Golden says, the instructors notice students tend to spend their time:

  • Reflecting and thinking instead of waiting for stimulation
  • Discovering and learning instead of being told and shown
  • Doing and experiencing instead of watching and owning

Play and outdoor learning spaces are a natural fit for preschool children, but TRS doesn’t stop there. The outdoor learning enrichment continues into the elementary grades as well.

“You can always walk around campus and find any one of our elementary classes taking advantage of the outside environment and using it as an extension of the classroom,” Golden says.

“Recently, our kindergarten children completed replicas of our newly redesigned playscape as part of a project aimed at helping us all become better acquainted with the new opportunities for learning,” she says.

By third grade at The Raleigh School, students are regularly outside digging for soil samples or collecting water from the creek to test and assess the health of the stream. Or, Golden says, you might see third-graders tending to the gardens they planted as part of the school’s “Plant a Row for the Hungry” efforts.

“Children do not differentiate between learning that occurs inside the classroom as opposed to that which takes place outside,” Golden says. “For them, it’s all about asking questions, making observations, and establishing connections.”

Below are images from The Raleigh School’s outdoor classrooms. Click here to learn more about TRS and how to apply for the 2020-2021 school year.

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Since its founding in 1952 as a parent cooperative, The Raleigh School has been a model for excellence in early childhood education. Our mission and abiding values drive our actions and have kept our community strong over the years. The Raleigh School is a cooperative community of children, parents, and teachers that fosters a love of learning in an atmosphere of challenge, inquiry, and respect. Learn more.

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