Why Is This Thing in Every Preschool?

Hi Readers — This guest post really got to me. Maybe because I’m an American Studies major from way back, I love thinking about what our modern day artifacts say about our culture and psyche. Today’s author, Mary O’Connell, is the director of LifeWays, an early childhood center in Milwaukee, and she noticed a new item that has become a must-have in preschools and wondered: Why this? Why now?

Before I present her essay, let me add that she and Cynthia Aldinger wrote a new book, Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families, all about bringing a little relaxation, nature and normalcy into day care (or at least, that’s how I read it). To order the book or find out more about LifeWays, which offers training and support for childcare providers in the form of newsletters, consulting, workshops and child development trainings, please visit www.lifewaysnorthamerica.org.  And now — on to the essay!

A GRAIN OF TRUTH by Mary O’Connell

I have recently been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom: the Sand Table, an indoor table filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through.  It seems that what began as a novel concept some 20 years ago has become a necessity in a quality preschool program.  When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, the early childhood program in which I work, 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 playland 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, cries and adventures 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.

How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.”  How sad 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, a group of childcare centers and homes across the country 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.  We go out even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less that “perfect.”  The benefits are immediately visible, as the children at our centers are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative — and less hyperactive — than their Sand Table/Gross Motor Room counterparts.

My dream is that we’ll come to a place in parenting and early childhood education where we’ll all 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, early childhood colleagues and prospective clients will enter a preschool classroom and inquire, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?” — M.O.

What's right with this picture?