Dear Dr. Hwang:
“How do you get kids to play outside if all they really want to do are play video games and be on the computer?”
There was a social/cognitive psychologist who claimed that teaching children about new ideas needed to occur gradually and likely over time. Lev Vgotsky viewed social interactions as a pathway towards learning. He believed that people, especially children learn best within a Zone of Proximal Development. He outlined three zones that children learn new behaviors within. But, one zone was identified as optimal.
Children, who have developed a habit or comfort level of staying inside, will require time to change this behavior. It is not realistic to expect that this behavior will change over night. At the same time, being outside, play and activity are important experiences in any child’s development. Children need to interact with each other, learn how to play, take turns, experience outdoor environments and soak up sun. An excess of sedentary behavior has increased the number of children identified as being obese, having childhood diabetes and a decreased social emotional skills. Playing outside is important. It’s as important as learning academic material.
Adults need to encourage children to join teams, participate in sports they enjoy and play with children. Initially, you may have to guide children who have spent too much time indoors about what there is to do outdoors. While it may seem obvious, some children may need ideas, modeling or a team before they feel comfortable? Telling kids to, “Go play outside,” may frustrate kids who don’t know what to do? Some children have grown accustom to guided activities and honestly do not know what to do with free time. Vgotsky referred to this stage of learning as the frustration stage. If humans become overly frustrated, they are more likely to give up and revert to old behavior. Consequently, it is optimal if children do not become too frustrated when they first play outside. They need to see the value of being outdoors. They may need you to join them, play with them or have a team, which will likely exhibit an enthusiasm for outdoor play.
While some children are eager to be outdoors most of the time, some are not. If a child is curious and have some desire to be outside, you may only need to give them simple instructions? Offering some easy instructions or direction may be enough encouragement to help them experience the value of outdoor play. Vgotsky stated that children at the instructional level can be given a task at their developmental level with some guidance, but should not be completely left on their own. He believed that children at the instructional level required some teaching or this presented a risk of throwing in the towel.
Once a child accumulates several positive experiences of being outside, they are likely at the level, Vgotsky labeled as independent. Children at this stage can be given a simple command, “Go play outside,” and they will. The desire is automatic and they know what to do. Developing this internal desire is worth it though.
Being in a new environment is attractive to some, but not all. More and more we resist being outside due to a habits of comfort. Even so, being outside and in nature increases psychological well being overall. Fresh air, sunshine and play are necessary for all of us to develop, take in nature and experience our environments. Adults who model a joy for outdoor living are more likely to have children who crave an outdoor environment as well. If you expose a child to something new, using the theory of, “Zones of proximal development,” may help increase the chances that the desired behavior you want will stick.
Kim S. Hwang, PsyD has a doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is an adjunct professor at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology. Email questions to [email protected]
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