INDEPENDENCE – Kidsville Early Learning Center teacher Jill Ridenour recently finished up an Honors Project for Hawkeye Community College.

“The Honors Project is quite special in the fact that only select students are offered the opportunity,” said Kelly Walton, Director of Kidsville.

Entitled “Investigating Outdoor Play”, Ridenour not only researched ways to engage children in playing outdoors, but also successfully implemented a number of changes to the Kidsville playground .

“Some of my earliest childhood memories are of me playing outside,” begins Ridenour’s report.

She goes on to describe the wonderful times she had playing in the snow with her brother, exploring the woods and fishing near her grandparents, creating a fort under a large pine tree, playing on a beach, and riding her bicycle.

“No memories are as strong as these early adventures outside when I was free to roam and explore the world around me,” she wrote.

The idea for her Honors Project came from noticing children, her own as well as her daycare charges, not playing outside as much these days.

Through her research she learned or confirmed that through playing, children:

- Learn to get up when they fall; learn to take chances; learn peer negotiations

- Grow mentally, physically and emotionally

- Discover new things, which help them make sense of the world

- Learn how to follow rules, resolve conflicts, make friends, and build relationships

Ridenour’ research showed children today are spending less time outdoors than their parents did as children. Part of the change comes from spending more time in classrooms. She quotes Richard Louv, saying “What we really need in America is not a leave no child behind movement, but a leave no child inside campaign.”

“Another reason why children aren’t playing outside is because we have become a nation who fear our surroundings,” Ridenour adds.

She credits the “Stranger Danger Campaign” as setting a misleading proposition, because in reality only 10% of child abductions are perpetrated by strangers; 90% by persons known to the child or family.

Other fears come from increased vehicle traffic and even litter.

“How can we get kids back outside?” she wrote, “First we need to provide them with time and space for them to do so.”

She also says their outdoor environment needs to be safe, inviting, and somewhat structured.

She studied the kids behavior at Kidsville before and after implementing changes. She researched economically viable play options, simple ideas that moved play and learning from the classroom to the outdoors, like art and reading, or even creating a math lesson by counting objects found outside.

“The truth is, you really have all you need already inside,” she wrote, “You just need to tote it outside and utilize it there.”

Ridenour then set about developing a plan, a “wish list” for the Kidsville playground. She wanted to develop spaces to spread out different activities. She involved staff, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, community businesses, and her family in creating new play areas for making mud pies, a construction zone, creating a “Music Mayhem Center” on a fence, a mini garden inside the fenced playground, organizing the storage shed, a “weaving fence”, and several other activities, for both individuals (i.e. chalk drawing) and group (i.e. Simon Says & Duck Duck Goose).

Using the Head Start Playspace Assessment, the Kidsville playground scored an 18/55 before the improvements. Now it scores a 44/55. Ridenour also noted a decrease in problems after the changes.

“If you provide the kids something to do, they will have less inappropriate behavior,” she said during a recent tour of the playground. “And it’s less stress for the teachers.

Ridenour wrapped up her report by reiterating her love of playing outdoors as a child.

“I wanted to share that love with other children and through this project I have been able to do so,” she wrote. “A lot of people don’t take play, let alone outdoor play, seriously when in fact it is the most serious of tasks for a child.”

Ridenour has garnered praise from her Kidsville boss, Kelly Walton and from her Hawkeye professor saying all of the playground improvements can be easily duplicated for other schools and daycare providers.

Ridenour looks forward to presenting her Honors Project at an awards event in April.