Is learning via play best done online, or should kids learn outdoors more often? What is the right balance for learning via play, given the availability of resources and the demands of the workforce?

The federal government is looking to close the technology gap in classrooms. In February 2014, President Obama pledged $3 billion as part of a coordinated effort between the federal government and the private sector to provide high-speed Internet access to 15,000 schools, Microsoft software for all K–12 schools, and broadband/wireless connections for 99 percent of students by 2019. While more resources are diverted toward digital learning, there is less of an emphasis on outdoor education — children currently go outside and play less than previous generations did. The de-emphasis of outdoor education, despite its merits, seems to suggest that spending time outside is less productive than digital learning.


Peter A. Bergson, Worked professionally with young people for 45 years.

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The term play, like so many others adopted by "educators", has been co-opted to mean what they want it to mean rather than what it has previously represented for generations. People like Peter Gray (Boston College psychologist, author of "Free to Learn") has been helpful is trying to revive play's original meaning. To begin with, in order to qualify as play, an activity must be one in which an individual is free to quit. Thus, playmates are obligated to be respectful of the needs of others (i.e., truly collaborate) lest they quit and thus bring the activity to an end. (I recall as a youth in the 1950s how we had to pitch slower to the less-developed batters, and not always relegate the youngest to being in right field, lest they leave us without enough players to field a team.) Obviously, one cannot "quit" computer "games" that are assigned in schools, so no matter how much fun they may be under certain conditions, they are not true examples of play. The same is true with games at recess where, again, one is obligated to participate. Although some activities are more enjoyable/less onerous than others, unless we are truly engaged by choice, we are unable to reap the most important advantages that play can bring.

Jonathan Plucker, Professor and Parent

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Easy question! The answer is "yes." Children (everyone, actually), needs to be able to learn everywhere, in as many different ways as possible. When I was an elementary school teacher, one day I realized that I was doing simulations of outdoor activities in the classroom, yet my students were all looking at the window at the beautiful fall weather. So I started moving lessons outside as often as possible. Students and parents loved it, although several colleagues were quite suspicious!

But too much outdoor would have also been creating the same problem in a different setting. We need to expose children to a wide range of learning contexts and approaches - balancing formal instruction and informal, unstructured play; online vs. face-to-face learning; indoor vs. outdoor; in groups vs. pairs vs. solo; etc. My big concern in this area is that we tend to move too far in one direction, emphasizing one approach at the expense of others. For example, a recent study found evidence that American students generally have great access to technology, but they don't know how to use it to solve problems. That hints at a lack of diversity about how we help students learn about tech. The key is balance - as adults, they will learn in countless ways in countless contexts, and we do them no favors by teaching them now in a narrow range of ways.

Kathryn deBros, Special Educator

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Great question!

Generally, learning through play implies that a child is using toys or props, interacting with peers, and/or moving around outside, as opposed to playing video games. While there are definitely benefits to learning by playing video games (hand-eye coordination, problem-solving, highly motivating), the use of computers is considered more of an engaging alternative to traditional instruction, rather than it's own kind of educational play.

Providing opportunities to play provides a host of benefits that video games can't touch, like developing fine and gross motor skills, encouraging kids to problem-solve and negotiate, build imagination and creativity, practice emotional regulation, and learning information in context, so that it's more relevant and therefore, more meaningful. The balance of work-play for kids varies as they grow, with youngest kids needing more play than older kids, even though it's helpful for kids of any age to have that opportunity. Employees of Google are encouraged to play, which allows room for innovation and makes for a more cheerful work environment. This guide, through UC Davis, has great information and tips on how to encourage play at every age level. However, how much play a kid should be getting is hotly debated, particularly as recess is getting cut more frequently in schools across the country.

Outdoor education is somewhat different, as it connotes structured lessons led by adults in the natural environment, activating all five senses as they interact with the world face-to-face, rather than via text. Outdoor education is somewhat new, and is considered a wonderful supplement to typical classroom activities, but it's not something teachers are trained to do or required to do. And you're right, there's a lot of evidence about its efficacy, but most schools are so pressed to deliver the minimum requirements, that they won't attempt any "extras." Although in Europe, spending time outside is fairly standard.

Regarding funding for technology, the idea is that all students at this point are going to have to know how to use various forms of technology in the future, and they should become fluent with navigating systems now. At the same time, technology is an engaging way to practice basic skills (especially the ones that you and I used to practice on flash cards...ugh), and playing games on ipads can actually teach them to get comfortable with the computers that they'll later use to send email, type essays, or design an object to print in 3 dimensions - and who knows what else? Probably more relevant is the fact that technology is a part of the common core, so schools have to be teaching it, and schools are receiving grants specifically for technology. There may be some grants available for outdoor education, but they are certainly few and far between.

I hope that answered your question. Thanks for the opportunity for a fascinating discussion! Kathryn

Vanessa Domine, University professor, teacher, author & parent.

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If we consider that play denotes engaging in activity for recreation and/or enjoyment (rather than productivity) then children can engage in play both online and offline/outdoors. Play can also blend with other collateral purposes—such as cognitive and social skill development. But when it comes to comparing outdoor education with online learning (as an "either/or" proposition) it is like comparing apples to terabytes.

Whatever our learning goals for children, we must first ensure a healthy populace. And health is not just physical—it also includes mental and social well-being. A confluence of technological, institutional, and social changes over the past couple of centuries have created serious physical and mental health challenges for all of us, and especially for our children. Playing outdoors does what online learning cannot: It teaches children, among other things, how to be physically active and to engage in the physical world.

As I write this response from New Jersey, it is summer vacation and I am seated around my dining room table with all four of my children on their respective laptops. Would we prefer to be biking at the local park? Absolutely. But the angry thunderstorm and rain outside makes it unwise to do so. I am mindful of families that live in regions where year-round inclement weather, high crime rates, or other environmental dangers constrain their ability to enjoy nature and the outdoors. All the more reason why schooling in the 21st century needs to deliberately teach all children how to be in nature. If families cannot, then schools by default have a moral obligation to do so.

Sadly, public schooling in the U.S. does not adapt on a macro level to meet this natural/technological challenge. Neither do educational leaders in a micro level magnify or leverage scientific data to inform instructional practices. Should children be more physically active during the school day? Absolutely. Does increased recess time for elementary level students (and structured social time for secondary level students) result in increased citizenship skills and even creativity? Yes, it does. Will increased physical activity yield higher test scores? Yes, it will. There is plenty of research available on this topic.

Perhaps a wiser use of government and corporate funding (as a departure from the decades-long shopping spree for computers and the internet) is to create more parks (let's call them SmartParks) that provide recreational spaces so that people of all ages, income-levels, and geographical locations can learn the value and rewards of nature and physical play.

Elizabeth Mack, Community College Writing Center Consultant, English Instructor, Writer

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Though the emphasis in digital learning is needed to keep our students competitive in the global economy, de-emphasizing outdoor education can have detrimental effects on students, especially inner-city children who have little access to nature. Recent research has shown that limited exposure to nature can have negative effects on the physical and psychological health of children. Research also suggests that children who have little to no experience in nature may disproportionally suffer from long-term consequences (Kellert 2005). Some researchers even go so far as to link children’s exposure to environmental pollutants and lack of access to nature to increased declines in their mental and physical health. Unfortunately, when funding is channeled to digital learning, funding for outdoor education and activities is cut, so it’s not surprising that American children are spending less and less time in nature, and poor and minority children are the most affected. Children raised in inner city locations often lack green spaces or easy access to nature, which has been shown to directly affect academic performance. Increasing evidence shows that access to nature can increase concentration, reduce stress and aggression, improve cognitive performance, as well as overall academic performance. While digital learning is important for students to stay competitive, we have to ask ourselves if taking students out of nature and putting them in front of computers is more beneficial in the long run, for not only their overall academic performance, but their mental and physical well-being.

Cindy Terebush, MS Early Childhood Studies, Certified Youth, Parent, Family Coach, Early Education & Parenting Consultant, Writer and Speaker

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We have to get children in nature more often. Nature is multi-sensory and stimulates more brain activity. When children are outside and feeling the wind, smelling the plants, seeing the plethora of colors and engaged in exploration, the possibility for discover is endless. We also need to remember that we are animals and animals need to be in nature. I have seen children learn so much from a day playing in the mud. Do you remember sitting on the grass and watching ants carry heavy loads? Or watching the clouds and describing the things you saw in their shapes? You remember that because your entire being was engaged. Technology will be an important part of their lives as they grow and we need to acknowledge that they will be tethered to it. They do need to learn how to use technology. They can learn from using it but if we don't find more balance, children will not develop as many skills as well.
I believe that play is defined by the joy and engagement of children's critical thinking and imagination skills. They need to be explorers, creaters and adventurers. I hope that people who understand how children think and learn become more vocal as we see the effects of shorter recess, more screen time and less time standing in the warm sunlight.

Norfina Joves, Educational Specialist, Academic Content Writer, Family Trainer, Contributing Writer

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I think what we need to keep in mind is to understand how to apply balance with learning through digital use and technology and social interaction among peers and adults. Kids can learn through both applications. Since kids and adults alike can learn through kinesthetic, visual, and auditory routes, its important to find what can best help enhance learning, promote language and communication, develop better cognitive and motor skills, while adults/parents/educators become active supporters for their growth and development. Although digital use or technological applications are considered skills that need/must be met early in a child's experience, it's also imperative to expose kids to interact in social play, become active participant in physical or hands-on work. Children need guidance on how to best communicate and learn, so as adults, whether you are a parent, educators, or teachers, we need to provide the approriate tools, resources, and guidance for kids. Imagine that each child would some day need to enter in the workforce - they are expected to have skills in online research, use of technology etc, but they also need to learn basic set of skills that would help them be successful in their job such as learning how to do well in an interview or exemplifying good judgment. These experiences and skills are expected when they grow up, so it's important to show them how to gain these skills through a good balance of tools, resources, and information available to them.

Dylan Ferniany, gifted and talented education administrator and advocate, interested in developing creativity & innovation in teachers and students

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Learning through play vs. play for fun suggests risk-taking, experimentation, and working through an enjoyable challenge. Like many forms of pedagogy this can be done with technology or without. I think back to the time when I loved to play computer adventure games like MYST. That game was more challenging than anything I got in school. I didn't learn any math, reading, or science in that game but I did learn how to persevere through problems and to tolerate ambiguity. I found the 20 year old game and played with some of my middle school students two years ago-- they loved the challenge despite the dated graphics.

Of course there has to be a balance between technology and exposure to the outside world. There are many ways that you can incorporate technology and outdoor learning, it is not a zero-sum game and both can be accomplished within the same setting. A great local example is the Birmingham Zoo School. Zoo educators balance outdoor activities like working in the eco-garden with an indoor classroom experience where students create presentations with iPads.

As educators a goal should be to get kids in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi), where they are learning and producing but having so much fun that they don't know they are learning or that the time has passed.

Brittney Miller, Graduate student instructor, gifted education instructor

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Learning via play should take place in many environments. While technology will be a large part of students' lives, it is important that they develop a balanced and responsible relationship with the internet. To help accomplish this, outdoor learning should be incorporated to help stimulate students physically and mentally. Outdoor learning can teach students about their surroundings, how to socialize with others, and how to live a healthy lifestyle by being active. The balance between digital learning and outdoor learning will vary with the needs from student to student, but nonetheless, both types of learning via play are pertinent to developing students' cognitive skills.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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I sometimes worry that we are asking kids to do too much test-based work and as a consequence they are losing their wonder at the world. Letting kids have unstructured time to discover is the key for learning to predict and guess. My daughter can stare at a butterfly for several minutes and then think of one poignant question. I don't think she would get the same awe from looking at a picture of a butterfly on a computer.

There are online resources that ask children to construct and create. As an educator who is also a parent, I tend toward those online resources when we are having our limited screen time. For example, we enjoy exploring the worlds of Reading Rainbow. The sense of exploration helps my child make choices and then learn more about reading and language.

I have little concern about her ability to use technology in the workforce. She knew as a baby how to use an iPhone like an expert and swipes her finger across computer screens. We can't even guess what kind of tech they will encounter, so why not get them outside as much as possible? The sense of wonder and the larger world will translate into a solid foundation for their learning.

Amy McElroy, SMU Law School graduate, Writer, Editor, and Parent of Two

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As pointed out in the answers above, kids in upcoming generations will engage in more technological play, which will give them skills to succeed in school and the workplace. But if we insulate children from the outdoors, we provide a disservice not only to our children, but to our world, itself. If children do not learn the value of nature by experiencing it firsthand, they will be less inclined to protect our natural resources, open spaces, and other elements, even if they develop the skills to solve our environmental crises. By creating memories of fishing in lakes and streams, hiking on mountain trails, visiting National Parks, simply blowing dandelions in the grass, and watching birds and squirrels pass, children will learn to place value on our environment and make it a priority in their adult lives. Just as a lab experiment brings a theoretical concept to life, children can see how the cycle of the Earth functions by visiting it up close and personal.

Robyn Scott, Educational Consultant, TutorNerds LLC

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Children learn so many valuable skills when they have a chance to play in a semi-structured environment. Technology is great for work and convenience, but without the opportunity to enjoy recess, kids are more likely to have trouble sitting and learning for the rest of the afternoon, they may lose social skills, and miss out on exercise. I think a healthy balance is the way to go.

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