For the one year he attended public schools in Roxborough, learning was hard for Noah Cason.
Today, as a fourth grader enrolled in Green Woods Charter School, Noah, 10, can't wait to get to class. "...We get to hike and go to the stream to test the water quality, and write about how we can protect the stream. We can actually experiment ourselves to learn about nature, which makes school fun."
Noah doesn't know it, but he's reaping the rewards of the No Child Left Inside movement, a push to increase children's access to outside play that gained momentum when Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, was published in 2005. Proponents claim unstructured play delivers cognitive benefits, increased creativity, improved physical health, and better executive function — "that part of your brain that says 'maybe it's not a good idea to follow your buddies over that cliff,'" says Louv.
Yet even as Louv's latest book, The Nature Principle, came out in paperback in April, the tug of war between academics and unstructured play continues to pull at schools: Budget cuts, teacher layoffs, and pressure to score higher on standardized tests have left little room for recess.
"Each year, the shift moves a little further towards academics because of the rigor that's required," says Renee Queen Jackson, Philadelphia schools' deputy chief for the Office of Early Childhood. Adapting its curriculum to account for the 2013-14 common core standards — what 45 states have adopted to provide a consistent educational framework — will demand even greater emphasis on academics.
The shift is happening in New Jersey schools, too.
"Believe it or not, it starts all the way in kindergarten with a focus on specific skills and students being able to build upon those skills as they progress in the various grades," said Kwame Morton, principal of Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Cherry Hill. "We can't afford to lose time with students, which is why we see more of a push toward an academic focus in kindergarten."
Both Queen Jackson and Morton say their curricula still include play, but academic preparedness is paramount. "We try to incorporate as much play as we can, but there are always situations where they may not get enough play in that's necessary for each individual child," says Queen Jackson.
The trickle-down-effect means preschools — even daycare — feel the pressure to push an academically focused curriculum.
A study published in the April edition of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that almost half of preschool children do not venture outside to play each day. Researchers looked at the social behavior of 8,950 U.S. children during their final year of preschool.
When Sharon Hershman opened Kids on 12th in Center City five years ago, she was trying to address a need for preschool enrichment, specifically playtime and extra-curricular activities. Then budget cuts in the Philadelphia school district led to larger class sizes with less teacher support. That reality forced Hershman to shift her focus away from a play-based curriculum.
"Play has become a four-letter word," insists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of the book A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. She says lack of play has robbed children of social and cognitive skills — creating disadvantages that more rigorous academics were meant to combat.
"We are very worried that the Chinese or Indian cultures are somehow going to overtake us if we don't start at day-minus-three in training our children so that they become better prepared for the workplace of tomorrow."
Still, there are schools and programs, including Green Woods, that continue to include play as a prominent piece of the academic puzzle.
"Research has been overwhelming about how using the environment can help to close the achievement gap in our schools," said Jean Wallace, CEO of Green Woods Charter School in Roxborough, which uses the Environment as an Integrating Context (EIC) model for its curriculum. Fourth-graders scoring proficient or advanced in science on statewide PSSA tests is 83 percent; Green Woods is 96 percent.
The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education has witnessed firsthand the power nature has in childhood development.
"Allowing children plenty of unstructured but supervised and safe time in the outdoors gives kids an opportunity to be more comfortable outside," says Virginia Ranly, Schuylkill Center director of education. "It also improves all of those skills and attributes associated with play, including self-confidence, leadership, problem solving and many health benefits."
Learning how to get along, communicate with peers, work in teams, use time, and collaborate, are instilled as kids navigate the playground, advocates say. Playing with blocks can teach lessons in physics and building sandcastles relies on critical thinking skills.
"We are told all the time from industry that these are the skills they want in our children," points out Hirsh-Pasek. "Fifty years of psychological research suggests that children learn best when they're active, when they are engaged, and when the material is meaningful."
A new study published in the March issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggested that promoting physical activity among young schoolchildren may improve their academic performance. The 138 children ages 8 through 11 performed best on mental acuity tests after either physical activity or academic activity, but less well when both were combined before testing — "helpful justification for increasing physical activity in the academic setting," according to the lead author.
Time will tell how Noah fares on his SATs, but for now, he knows he likes being outside.
"Everyday I think maybe we'll go on a hike today or we'll learn something new, and I'm excited," he says.