As we talk about rhythm, part of my yearly rhythm as director of LifeWays is our annual YoungStar evaluation. You can read on our website about my feelings about YoungStar and its one-size-fits-all approach to early childhood education. My biggest beef is that for a program to be rated five stars, the caregivers need to follow a very materials-driven approach to caring for children. Since this doesn’t mesh really well with our model of simplicity, we have been happy to settle for a three-star rating and be done with it. Still, the YoungStar process always makes me ponder the mainstream world of childcare.
For some time, I have been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom – the Sand Table; a table in the room filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through. It seems that what began as a novel concept some twenty years ago has now become a necessity in a quality preschool program. When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, they ask, “Where’s your sand table?” as if the absence of one is a red flag that we’re not providing our young apprentices with all of the vital experiences they need.
Now, as a caregiver of small children, I love sand play. But as a caretaker of the space the children inhabit, I’m not sure who thought it was a great idea to provide it indoors. After all, how many homes do you know that have a sandbox in the living room? Here’s the question that seems reasonable to ask…can’t children play with their sand outside, the way they’ve done for generations, along with the sticks, mud, puddles, ice, and other great tactile experiences that Mother Nature provides for them? I’ve come to the conclusion that a sand table, however incongruent with a clean and tidy living space, has become a requirement in the early childhood classroom because it’s the only experience many children have with the natural world. Sadly, most children do not experience daily outdoor play in nature.
If it’s drizzling, chilly, or anything less “desirable” than 75 degrees-and-sunny, most preschool programs keep children indoors, opting for the sand table and the other modern miracle of childcare -- the Gross Motor Room; a cavernous space with padded walls, riding toys and an overwhelming din, as children expend their energy in a frenetic McDonald’s Play Land fashion. When I was young and my friends and I began running around with this level of energy, my parents promptly sent us outdoors to play, where our shouts and cries were met with wide open spaces, and where our play often became more purposeful and less frenzied. The natural environment invited us to do more than run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We made mud pies and potions, created games, poked around in the creek with sticks, climbed trees and took physical risks that taught us a lot about our own strengths and limitations.
Were we deprived when the sand was too frozen to play with for one whole season of the year? Nope, we simply learned to be creative with snow and ice and sticks. And the sweetness of the spring thaw and the first foray back into the sandbox is a pleasure I remember with great satisfaction.
How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.” That we feel we need to provide every possible experience in a manufactured, synthetic way because we’re too afraid, too controlling, or just too lazy to bring them out into nature.
I am so grateful for LifeWays, where children play in nature on a daily basis for long periods of time because it’s considered as vital to their development as a healthy diet and enriching learning activities. Even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less perfect than a sunny 75 degrees. The benefits are immediately visible, as the children are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative and less hyperactive than their Sand Table-Gross Motor Room counterparts. Oh, and less obese, as well.
My dream is that we’ll come to a place in early childhood education where educators and legislators will realize the virtual world we’ve created indoors is a poor substitute for the natural world right outside our homes and classrooms. In my dream world, colleagues and YoungStar evaluators will enter every preschool classroom and inquire not, “Where is your sand table,” but, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?”