Take It Outside

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Lauren Bates and her son Jett enjoy the outdoors together.

Lauren Bates knows what can happen when schools intensely focus on preparing children to pass state-mandated tests.

It often leads to the elimination of recess, art classes, music lessons and other programs that parents value, said Bates, who worked as a public school teacher in Florida for three years. The Sunshine State was among the first in the country to adopt standardized testing to evaluate the competency of students and teachers.

"I have seen the future, and you won't like it," said Bates, who taught in an elementary school that had eliminated recess to give teachers more instruction time. The experience motivated her to research how unstructured outdoor play affects children.

"I was the teacher, and I felt like I was in jail. I can't imagine what it was like for the kids," said Bates, who moved to Bexley in 2012 with her 6-year-old son Jett to study at Ohio State University.

Ohio parents may soon find themselves defending the need for art, music and physical education teachers; school counselors; library media specialists; nurses; social workers and visiting teachers.

In December, the Ohio Board of Education took the first step in eliminating a state mandate that required schools to have at least five of those eight positions for every 1,000 students. The board will take a final vote on what's known as the "5 of 8" measure at its March meeting.

Critics fear abolishing the requirement gives school administrators - especially those in poorer districts - permission to eliminate staff members whose area of expertise is not covered on standardized tests.

Bates argues that recess and exposure to music and art have the potential to help students pass standardized tests.

"When children are engaged in music and the arts, they're using several parts of the brain at the same time. The arts stimulate parts of the brain that handle logic, language, creativity and emotion - all skills that are necessary to perform well on tests," she said.

Building curriculum around the tests is a disservice to children and society, she said.

"The purpose of education is to produce critical thinkers and good citizens," she said. "Critical thinkers will pass these tests."

Bates became an advocate for recess while working in Florida. When she tried to teach her third-graders math after lunch, she found that many of the students had difficulty focusing and got frustrated easily. She started taking the class outside for 30 minutes of reading or free play. She found that they returned to the classroom ready to learn.

"If I just gave them a half hour, we were gaining 2.5 hours of instruction time," she said. "They were more willing to listen. They were better able to regulate their anger and frustration. Math can be frustrating for many kids."

When the principal prohibited Bates from taking the students outdoors because there was no evidence that it improved learning, Bates decided to find some. She earned a master's degree in environmental science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

She is currently a research fellow in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State.

She is studying how spending time outdoors impacts kids and what happens when children have limited exposure to nature. She has found that other academicians also have looked at how this issue relates to their fields of study but no one has collated the information.

Dr. Idelle Brand, a holistic dentist and health educator, has long encouraged patients to send children outside. Breathing fresh air improves kids' health and sleep, she said.

"We all need to be outside," said Brand, who practices in New York. "If you have health challenges, you will feel better after spending time outside."

Bates says evidence shows that spending time outdoors decreases a child's chance of becoming farsighted, increases a person's physical and mental well-being and combats obesity. She has concluded that a lack of time spent outdoors leads to something she calls "Environmental Deficit Phenomenon," which is a series of health and developmental issues that arise from not going outside.

She hopes her findings will encourage parents, health-care providers and school administrators to see the value of unstructured outdoor play.

"We're happier, healthier and more productive when we spend time in nature," Bates said.

Lauren Bates provided the following suggestions for places to take children during the winter:

Grange Insurance Audubon Center (505 W. Whittier St., Columbus 43215; 614-545-5475) - Why Bates loves it: "The Audubon Center provides open areas for nature play but is still close to Downtown, making it very accessible. It has structured events, activities and camps, but no one minds if a family goes there just to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings."

COSI (333 W. Broad St., Columbus 43215; 614-228-2674) - Why Bates loves it: "I got the opportunity to visit COSI as a child when my middle-school class came from Cincinnati to see the old museum. Even though I was only 12, I've always remembered it as a fantastic experience. I was very excited to take my child to COSI when we moved to Columbus. I was definitely not disappointed.

"My favorite place is the Little Kidspace, with the pretend farm.Children can milk a cow, gather fruits and veggies and add to their fun by taking a kids-and-nature workshop with some of the COSI staff.There are resident animals who come out for visits at specified times and even a hands-on water area just for the smallest scientists. Older children have opportunities throughout the museum to engage in higher-level versions of many of the same concepts. The facility is mostly indoors, so it's a great pick on days when it's cold or rainy. As an added bonus, a membership to COSI is reciprocal with many other science and history museums around the country.Also, COSI offers a Family Access membership for lower-income residents. I recommend going on Sunday when the parking meters are free; otherwise there is a charge to park, even for members."

Columbus Metro Parks (various locations; 614-891-0700) - Why Bates loves it: "The numerous parks around Central Ohio boast a full schedule of events. Free outdoor fun always translates into a great time with the family. A quick Google search for Columbus Metro Parks will bring up a master search engine that lists all of the events at all the parks. You can filter by age group and other options. I particularly like to hike at Blendon Woods, and my son loves to visit the nature center there.Our dog really enjoys going on the pet-friendly trails. (Some areas are NOT pet friendly, so be sure to check first.)

"Other parks have more challenging trails, and some offer fishing, either at your leisure or during scheduled events with lessons.Naturalists offer activities year round. Children can learn about animals, go on bird-watching walks and make arts and crafts.I highly suggest putting on cold-weather gear and getting outside even in the winter. One hourlong trek down an easy trail per week will make a huge difference in your children's mindset. There is no better remedy for cabin fever and the winter blahs."

Westerville Community Center (350 N. Cleveland Ave., Westerville 43082; 614-901-6500) - Why Bates loves it: "The Watering Hole swim area and Zenith Climbing Wall are both great exercise on days when it's too cold or rainy to play outside.The climbing wall is designed to be a naturalized surface, which means that it's as close to a true sheet of rock as a kid can get in Columbus in the winter.Swimming and rock climbing are both excellent for physical fitness, and there are different areas for all skill levels. There is a lazy river for those of us who need some R&R after the climbing wall. My son is always physically spent but mentally stimulated after leaving, which makes for a great night sleep at home and a great morning the next day."

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (1777 E. Broad St., Columbus 43203; 614-715-8000) - Why Bates loves it: "It's always warm and toasty inside, even in the winter. This is a great place to experience warm weather, green space and sunshine (through the glass in the indoor gardens).The conservatory hosts many events for children. There are cooking classes, gardening workshops and even a magician makes appearances from time to time. It's not really a place to run and jump, but it's great to walk around and enjoy the beautiful weather, especially in butterfly season.My son likes to take a sketchbook and some colored pencils.It's an ideal place to sit on a bench and play a card game with an older child or stroll with babies.Parking is free, and all of the gardeners are very friendly. They love to answer questions and talk with children. It's an all-around great escape from the cold weather in winter months, and there are more options to roam and play a little more actively in the outdoor areas during warmer weather."