During the summer, libraries are a destination for families to play, learn, and escape the heat, but what about those beautiful sunny days when no one wants to be inside? This summer at the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) we offered a new early childhood program simply titled: Play Outside. Families with young children were invited to join us in our library’s green space for free play fun. Our library does not have its own playground; there are no jungle gyms or climbing equipment, just an open, grassy field lined with trees and bushes. With a few new toys and some repurposing of old ones, we were able to turn this empty space into a rich outdoor play environment for a few hours each month.
Our play outside program featured a sand table and a water table that we made by borrowing two large plastic storage bins. We grabbed some plastic ocean animal figurines that adorn our children’s non-fiction shelves and brought those outside with us to play with in our “ocean.” We also incorporated many large manipulative toys including beach balls, bucket stilts, hop-along balls, jumping sacks, hula hoops, and a parachute. We also created a large seating area with picnic blankets, board books, sidewalk chalk, and bubbles. While our supplies were simple, their uses were varied and complex. One young child gave the toy fish “baths” with a bucket, while another built a sand castle, pretending to be at the beach. Two children enlisted parents and peers to play parachute games, and the group worked together to keep the beach balls in the air. On the picnic blanket, a mother read to her baby, while her preschooler drew pictures with chalk, next to them. As families moved organically from one activity to another, they connected with other families. Parents chatted and shared information about upcoming community events and new friendships were forged among the children. As the facilitator of the program, I also had the chance to have on-on-one conversations with parents and kids alike, and received valuable feedback on library programs and services.
One of the great things about a program like this is that it’s easily customizable as there are no requirements except an outdoor space. Our program centered on a multipurpose open space and manipulatives, but other ideas include: wheeled toys, music and movement props, play houses, balance beams or stepping stones, flower or vegetable gardens, and much more. If your library doesn’t have an outdoor space, consider meeting at a local park or playground. But wait; can’t families just go to the park instead? We agree that families can and should still visit parks, but librarians who offer outdoor programs have a unique opportunity to bring their communities together to encourage a love of learning, nature, and a healthy active lifestyle. In fact, the Institute of Museums and Libraries (IMLS) has identified “improving family health and nutrition” as a national priority, because we know that children’s learning is inextricably linked to their health. Outdoor play encourages children to run, lift and carry things, to use their imaginations, and cooperate with other children. In fact a recent article by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that, “Children who regularly play outdoors tend to be fitter and leaner, develop stronger immune systems, play more creatively, have more active imaginations, report lower stress levels, and demonstrate greater respect for themselves and others (Fjørtoft 2004; Burdette & Whitaker 2005)” (Spencer & Wright 28). With all these benefits, I encourage you to give outdoor programs a try.
Do you already offer something like this at your library? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
(All photos courtesy of guest blogger)
Stephanie C. Prato is a member of the ALSC Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee. She is the Director of Play to Learn Services at the Fayetteville Free Library in NY. If you have any questions, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.