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Learning through Experience

Experiences with an
Five-year-old Phoebe
dashes around the
Outdoor Prop Box The result of
academic pres-
school yard with the

Addressing Standards
sures on schools
other children in
and teachers
her kindergar-
today is that

during Recess
ten class. They
40 percent
search for some-
of elementary
schools in the
that creeps, crawls, or
United States
has wings. This has Celeste Elaine Hanvey [are] reducing,
become the mission
of the group since they deleting, or con-
received an insect-catching sidering deleting
net and storage box with a magnifying glass on top. recess (NAECS/SDE 2002, 1). Instead, educators should be
Daily, Phoebe and her peers find small creatures, and looking for ways to show the importance of free play, physi-
they discuss the differences between them. After studying cal activity, and exploration for children and, in addition,
the creatures closely, the children spread out along the how teachers can include more curricula outdoors.
sidewalk to draw the beetles and ladybugs, using colored
chalk from their class prop box. How many legs does
your creature have? a friend asks Phoebe. Phoebe quietly A perplexing problem
counts and reports back, Mine has six!

When educators take play out of schools, children learn
ithout any direction from the teacher beyond to separate play from learning. In reality, children access
encouragement to play, Phoebe and her learning through play. Zygmunt-Fillwalk and Bilello (2005)
friends have just gone through a series of suggest that recess activities lead to an increase in aca-
mandated science standards that Texas kindergartners demic performance.
are expected to master before moving on to first grade NAEYC agrees, describing play as an important vehicle
(TAC [1998] 2009)all in one recess. Phoebes class is for developing self-regulation as well as promoting lan-
lucky to have outdoor playtime daily, but in many schools guage, cognition, and social competence and an opportu-
this is no longer a given. nity for children to understand and make sense of their
world, interact with others, express and control emotions,
Celeste Elaine Hanvey, MEd, teaches third grade in Frisco, and develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities
Texas. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees (NAEYC 2009, 14). Through play, children naturally interact
in elementary education at Texas Christian University, in Fort with one another, share language, mimic, and learn.
Worth. This Young Children contribution is her first professional
article. A joint position statement of the International Reading
Association and NAEYC points out that when educators set
Photos Celeste Elaine Hanvey.
up an environment filled with print, language, and writing

opportunities, children automatically engage in play that
2, 3 incorporates literacy tools (IRA & NAEYC 1998, 9). Despite

30 Young ChildrenJanuary 2010

research efforts to promote the academic, physical, and running, swinging, and scooping gravel. I observed a mod-
cognitive importance of play in the lives of children, some erate amount of adult-child conversation. Children would
school systems have reduced or eliminated playtime for ask for the teachers attention when going down the slide,
young children. and/or they would say hello to adults passing by. I did not
observe exploratory play or literacy play during this recess
A simple solution: Reconsidering Next, I created an outdoor prop box (see Researcher
the outdoors Prop Box, p. 32) to provide learning opportunities for
childrens academic enhancement, literacy practice, and
What can education professionals do to enhance aca- dramatic play that would align with the Texas Essential
demic performance without sacrificing outdoor playtime? Knowledge and Skills standards for kindergarten (TAC
The outdoors...should not be considered a place where [1998] 2008). When I introduced the prop box to the chil-
children simply run around releasing stored-up dren, we discussed how they were respon-
energy. It should be seen as an extension of the sible for bringing the prop box outside
indoor classroom, with childrens social, emo- with them each day, returning the props
tional, cognitive, and physical skills develop- Learning opportu- to the box at the end of play, and bring-
ing outdoors just as they do indoors. (Odoy & ing it back to a designated area.
Foster 1997, 12)
nities abound in
After we discussed some simple
The solution is simple: Take indoor learning
the outdoorsit guidelineswhat it means to share with
outdoors. is a natural exten- each other and how to resolve pos-
As part of my graduate research project, sion of the tradi- sible conflictsthe children dug in. I
I wanted to learn the level of cognitive and tional classroom. observed their activity interacting with
academic play I would observe among kin- the prop box materials daily during
dergartners if I made an outdoor prop box recess for the next two weeks. At the end
available to a class in a small urban school. of the first week, I introduced additional
First, I observed the typical outdoor play of the items to provide some variety. For example, I
children during two 45-minute sessions. An analysis of my traded the books for three new ones, included new writing
field notes showed that the children primarily engaged in materials, and added paintbrushes and buckets.

My post-intervention
field notes painted a
whole new picture of
what was happening on
the playground, giv-
ing me observational
evidence that many
academic standards
were being addressed
naturally by the children
themselves in their play
with the items in the
prop box. On their own,
the children practiced
writing their names and
letters, drew shapes they
had been talking about
during math, and used
water to paint on the
sidewalk, fence, and wall.

Young ChildrenJanuary 2010 31

The classroom teacher reported that the children were Outcomes
fascinated when their sidewalk and brick canvases became
brand new, clean palettes after the water dried. The literacy This outdoor prop box experience not only enabled the
and language explosion was quite exciting to watch: chil- children to practice and extend academic skills they were
dren picked up and studied pictures in books and newspa- learning indoors, but also enhanced their social skills,
pers, discussed with one another the images and stories, another learning standard teachers are expected to address
and even used puppets to practice storytelling. in kindergarten. We observed the children using conflict
The children made it a daily goal to find and study an resolution techniques when trouble arose. The kinder-
insect. The teacher raved about how excited the children gartners took turns with the materials and learned what it
were to discuss what kind of creature it was, its parts, meant to be responsible as they restored the prop box each
and its habitat. This response prompted me to add simple day and put it back where it belonged.
insect identification guides to my list of prop box items to During a post interview, two of the participating children
include in the future. The children worked together to build said they enjoyed having the prop box to use during their
interesting towers, buildings, and automobiles out of Legos outdoor playtime. They looked forward to using particular
and blocks. They continued to run but added a twist to the materials each day and were ready to go back outside and
activity by chasing each other with the ribbon sticks flow- dig in again.
ing behind them.

Making a prop box

Here are some simple things to consider when creating
Researcher Prop Box an outdoor prop box experience for children:
lap desks Find a container. It does not have to be fancy; any large,
Legos/blocks sturdy box, carton, plastic tub, or crate will do.
writing tablets Choose a theme, and keep it simple. Connect it to a topic
markers in all colors the children are studying in the classroom or create an
various kitchen tools (ladle, spoon, tea exploration prop box as an introduction to a new topic.
strainer, colander, measuring cups, flour sifter, Fill the container with various open-ended materials (see
spatula, and so on) Outdoor Prop Box Suggestions).
paintbrushes Include different kinds of childrens books, drawing and
buckets writing paper, markers, paintbrushes, and colored chalk.
play hats Introduce the prop box and talk about the social behav-
ribbon sticks iors expected of all users: sharing, being responsible, taking
garden gloves turns, and so on.
5 hand puppets Interact and encourage play, but do not direct it.
plastic cups Supervise children at all times.
Ask the children for feedback. How do they like the materi-
als? What materials would they suggest adding or changing?
insect-catcher box, with tweezers and
magnifying glass
insect nets, various sizes Conclusion
picture books Educators must play a part in restoring recess as a
natural, important extension of classroom learning and
The Tiny Seed, by E. Carle
childrens healthy development. Teachers can easily create
Mouse Mess, by L. Riley
prop boxes linked to their unit or lesson plans. And they
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by S. Taback
can address state and early childhood program standards
Just Go To Bed, by M. Mayer
in all areas (NAEYC 2005).
What Will the Weather Be? by L. DeWitt
My study showed that children explore and use the
Where the Wild Things Are, by M. Sendak
prop box materials of their own accord. The literacy and
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by E. Carle language explosion that occurred was exciting for me to
Backyard Bugs, by R.K. Laughlin observe as an educator and for the children experiencing it.
Consider it yourself; create an outdoor prop box, and watch
what happens!

32 Young ChildrenJanuary 2010

Outdoor Prop Box Suggestions
For Preschool/Kindergarten
Content Ideas Container Ideas
shovels, buckets, scoops, muffin tins Durable plastic crates, wooden crates, card-
plastic hoop, squirt bottles, spray bottles board boxes, plastic totes, water table
plastic cars, dump trucks, toy boats
PVC pipes and PVC elbows
watering cans, small rakes, garden tools and gloves
soup ladle, strainer, funnels, stoppers
sponges, squeeze bottles
fishing bobbers, corks, scoops, packing peanuts
medicine droppers, lids buttons
ping-pong balls, marbles, magnets
food coloring, salt shaker, thermometer
feathers, tennis balls, rubber balls
Legos, various writing materials, costumes, puppets
lots of books and authentic literature, such as environ-
mental print, childrens magazines, and newspapers

For Primary Grades 1 through 3

Content Ideas Container Ideas
any of the above Laundry basket, cardboard box, crate, storage
binoculars, magnifying glasses, stopwatches bin, mesh bags
costumes, animal puppets, musical instruments
nature-related props, bird feeder, wind sock
Cuisenaire rods, dice, Unifix cubes, base ten blocks
measuring tape, wooden wedges, jump ropes
measuring cups of various sizes and shapes,
buckets, shovels, sand and water materials
painting easel, watercolors, paper and markers, vari-
ous writing utensils

References TAC (Texas Administrative Code). [1998] 2009. Title 19, Part 2, Chapter 112:
Texas essential knowledge and skills in science. 112.2 Science, Kindergar-
IRA (International Reading Association) & NAEYC. 1998. Learning to ten.,2
read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young Zygmunt-Fillwalk, E., & T.E. Bilello. 2005. Parents victory in reclaiming
children. Joint position statement. recess for their children. Childhood Education 85 (1) 1923.
NAECS/SDE (National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State
Departments of Education). 2002. Recess and the importance of play: Additional resources
A position statement on Young Children and Recess. http://naecs-sde.
org /recessplay.pdf Jarrett, A., & S. Waite-Stupiansky. 2009. On Our Minds. RecessIts indis-
NAEYC. 2005. NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards and Accredita- pensable! Young Children 64 (5): 6669.
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ton, DC: Author. DC: NAEYC.
NAEYC. 2009. Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood NRC (National Research Council). 1996. National Science Education Stan-
programs serving children from birth through age 8. Position state- dards: Observe, interact, change, learn. Washington, DC: National Acad-
ment. emies Press. www.
Odoy, H.A.D., & S.H. Foster. 1997. Creating play crates for the outdoor Trawick-Smith, J. 1998. Play and the curriculum. In Play from birth to
classroom. Young Children 52 (6): 1216. twelve and beyond, eds. J.L. Frost, S.C. Wortham, & S. Reifel, 21245.
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ch110a.html#110,2 Permissions and Reprints online at