Unstructured Outdoor Play and The Other STEM

Once upon a time children got to learn some cool stuff in school, such as reading and writing and how to solve for x. How an inclined plane actually works and the importance of the seed cycle and the water cycle and how different colors combine to form new ones were also part of learning in school. They still are. It used to be, however, that kids also got to play quite a bit in between classes. Recess was just as important as all the academic skills being learned. Recess and free play after school at home, in the neighborhood and at friends’ houses afforded important opportunities for kids to learn other skills, such as sharing, being polite, problem solving, working through differences with peers, kindness, communication, empathy and compassion. So, school taught academic skills like English Language Arts (ELA) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects, while play and other everyday life opportunities took care of what we at Outdoor Life Learners refer to as The Other STEM skills: Sensory development, Teamwork and problem solving, Emotional IQ and Motor development. Today things are very different.

Today’s Prevalent Learning Environment

The main objective of the current educational infrastructure appears to be predominantly academic in nature. It aims to convey academic skills, such as how to read, write and appreciate literature. Thanks to a rather recent movement, all the STEM disciplines also get ample time to shine during a child’s k-12 career. No one disputes that acquiring these academic skills is important. The problem arises when the act of imparting knowledge, any kind of knowledge, infiltrates and commandeers all areas of a developing child’s life. Once upon a not so distant time, children would go to school, learn what schools taught, and then go home and play. Kids would play until dark or later, invent their own games, establish their own rules, work out their own issues in their own kid-established hierarchies. This, coupled with reasonably long recesses in school, allowed for ample and much needed down-time in a developing child’s brain. Over the last 30 years, this time for free play has all but disappeared from our children’s lives.

A typical “day in the life” today features a child going to school and then being shuttled to assorted adult-led, after-school activities, followed by homework. By the time dinner rolls around there is very little opportunity for meaningful exchange with family. To make matters worse, recess is severely diminished and kids often don’t even go outside during the school day. Why is this important?

Consequences of Removing Free Play from the Educational Equation

In an effort to teach such important STEM and ELA skills we have been systematically chipping away at our children’s other crucial life skills, The Other STEM skills. The Other STEM skills develop through free, unstructured play. At a time in a child’s development when they most need free, unstructured play, we have successfully taken that play away. Take away play in childhood and kids adapt. But they do so at the expense of a healthy sensory system.Take away play in childhood and kids carry on, but at the expense of a healthy emotional IQ and their ability to positively interact with others. Another way of saying this: take away play in childhood and kids maladapt. By taking away free play, we undermine proper development of The Other STEM skills, resulting in stressed-out, anxious, emotionally-wrecked, uncoordinated little humans. How can free play ensure proper development of The Other STEM skills?

Free Play and the Human Central Nervous System

Healthy sensory development is the gateway for developing healthy interpersonal and intrapersonal skills as well as a fully-functioning motor system. The human sensory network is comprised of the traditionally known special senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell). Add to that the ability to sense one’s position in space (proprioception) and the vestibular sense (balance), and each individual possesses an intricate and incredible network of sensory and motor systems interacting with each other to ensure a person can walk, talk, communicate, feel compassion, get along with others, etc. A lot of sensory development needs to take place in order to yield a healthy, well-adjusted individual. The way the human brain develops a healthy sensory framework is by experiencing the world in a whole-body approach. The best time in a human’s life to engage in this whole-body learning is when an individual is primed for play. Humans are primed for play during childhood.

Free, unstructured play affords situations in which children learn to navigate obstacles, challenges and differences among peers. The proprioceptive and vestibular feedback kids get from balancing on a log, for instance, reinforces reflex circuits within the spinal cord and ensures proper muscle development and motor coordination of the lower extremities. During free, imaginative play kids forge relationships, work through problems, build, tear down, create and invent forts, establish rules and hierarchies and hold each other accountable. If they don’t, the game stops. They encounter their own emotions, the emotions of others, and figure out how to deal with them. All the emotional, sensory and motor information a child’s brain receives during a fantasy game of “running through the trees as part of a group protecting the book of dragon secrets”, for instance, provides invaluable data that the executive function regions of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) need to lay down important neuronal circuits. These prefrontal cortex circuits will be essential for those kids later on, as they face numerous daily choices, including decisions regarding safe driving, drug use, and efficient ways of allocating their time in order to accomplish goals. All the “emotional exercise” a child gets during the hard-core negotiations that take place within fantasy and pretend games provides our more primitive limbic system with the tools it needs to ensure a child learns to tap into the right emotion for a given scenario. Movement, spinning, rolling, jumping, running, lots and lots of running, balancing, climbing, falling, getting up again, falling some more, figuring out what to do in order not to fall again, all these are best honed through play and are all essential for proper development of our gross and fine motor systems. The ability of a child to balance on a bicycle and to skip and jump alternating feet (activities that require neuronal circuitry that crosses the midline) is a more accurate indicator of reading and handwriting readiness than a child reciting their ABC’s.

Benefits of Nature-based and Outdoor Learning Alternatives

The most efficient and affordable way to reintroduce free play into our children’s lives is to get them outside. A lot. Every day. Daily outdoor excursions and nature immersion activities have the advantage of being able to stimulate the whole body. All the senses are triggered and forced to fire. The interactions between sensory networks, motor and limbic systems are strengthened and children develop in a more well-rounded manner. Unfortunately, many families at home and teachers at school are unable to set aside large blocks of time for free, outdoor play with their children. Work schedules, government-mandated curriculum standards, testing requirements, etc. all interfere with the all-important need for free, unstructured play every child has.

Nature schools, forest kindergartens and a large number of nature-immersion learning programs were born out of this need to reintroduce free play into a child’s daily rhythms. These programs all share similar findings, including the fact that when kids are placed in an environment that they enjoy and understand they are more likely to develop a love for learning that will accompany them throughout their K-12 career, and well into adulthood. When kids are free to explore, imagine and manipulate their surroundings in a safe educational environment, they will develop the framework needed for acquiring the necessary academic skills to further their learning. Learning outdoors makes the experience fun and easy; children look forward to it and don’t view learning as a chore.

Indeed, “children develop their outlook on life in general in whatever school setting they find themselves in. If they are encouraged and engaged, they develop a positive outlook on their surroundings. This is especially important to keep in mind with boys. Boys are naturally less able to sit still for long periods of time, and yet it is something they have to do in a traditional school setting. When given the opportunity to learn outside, on the other hand, they find learning fun and challenging. They have longer attention spans, engage more readily in conversation, and seem to feel more adequate around their peers and adults. Children respond positively to the out-of-doors, which does not stifle them, and their outlook on life seems unencumbered. It is as if they have learned to feel at ease with their abilities. Acting out is not a temptation. They are more at home with themselves.” (Nancy Conta).

As Rachel Carson so eloquently put it: “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” (Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”).

We need to bring back unrestricted, unstructured outdoor play so we can better nurture our children’s Other STEM skills. Only when The Other STEM skills are honed, will the traditional STEM and ELA skills truly stick and work in their favor.


Thank you Greg, Heath, Nancy, Benga, Carrie, Martin and Mark for critically reading this article. Your input, patience and willingness to listen and brainstorm are greatly appreciated as we embark on a new and exciting adventure!

Additional Readings and Resources:

Gray, Peter. “Free to Learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.” Published by Basic Books. 2013.

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods. Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2008

Axness, Marcy. “Is your child ready to read? A checklist.” Web blog post. June 3, 2014.

Ackoff, R.L. and Greenberg, D. “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track.” Upper Saddle River, NJ: Publishing as Prentice Hall. 2008

Podcast: ‘The Objective of Education is Learning, Not Teaching’. Knowledge@Wharton. Wharton University of Pennsylvania. August 20, 2008.

Carson, Rachel. “The Sense of Wonder”. Harper and Row Publishers. 1965

Blog Post: 'Gross Motor Skills and Handwriting'. Your Therapy Source.

#earlyeducation #forestschool #natureschool #play #TheOtherStem #STEM #sensorydevelopment #teamwork #problemsolving #emotionalIQ #motordevelopment #centralnervoussystem

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