browser phone mail fax play search left-arrow right-arrow up-arrow quote-left equalizer google facebook instagram twitter linkedin

In our School Readiness blogs so far, I have focused on important social-emotional skills and cognitive skills, but children also need bodies that are ready to learn. In order to be primed for a school environment, they need their neurological systems developed, as well as strong and coordinated muscles. Because these topics are connected but detailed, I will focus on the neurological systems, including the senses, this month, and next month I will examine strength and coordination. 

As I write this, my monitor is on a desk that also has on it several pens, paperclips, thumbtacks, and stacks of paper and is surrounded by bookshelves and wall décor. All these objects are in my field of vision, but my brain is only focused on the words I am writing. This is because my neurological system has developed over time. This process begins for each person at birth and is a crucial one. If a child is not able to filter out irrelevant information, they will have difficulty interacting with others and later will have difficulty with academics. 

Learning how to filter information starts with young children using all their senses to understand the world. In terms of vision, infants learn about the world by watching it. Infants start with very basic information; for example, they begin to understand that the ground is down by our feet and that everything falls down by repeatedly pushing a spoon off a table and seeing it land. By making observations like this, children start grasping concepts about how the world functions around them; they can then start moving that visual input to the back of their minds and begin making decisions about what they would like to focus on. For example, by the time they are preschoolers, children typically stop paying attention to things falling because they can expect the result. Instead, they might start paying attention when they see a balloon float up into the air.

In the first five or six years of life, children need lots of practice watching all the different objects and activities around them as they learn to tune out what is unnecessary for the task at hand. They need to filter out extraneous visual information to be able to pay attention to a teacher, zero in on individual letters as they learn to read, and shift focus from one object to another while counting.   

Children are using and developing their other senses in the same way as vision. Children develop these senses and the ability to process them by using multiple senses at the same time. Play is the best way to do this because children can self-select what stimulus they need to make things interesting – what they can focus their attention on versus what is either too little stimulus (and not worth their attention) or too much stimulus and therefore overwhelming. Using multiple senses at the same time tends to be the most interesting for them, while giving the most sensory information to the brain. But what appeals to children differs. Banging pots and pans might excite one infant, while upsetting another. Only the infant who enjoys the loud sounds will play this way. The same is true of messy things like playdough; some will love it, and some will avoid it.  

Because of these personal differences, if there is more than one child playing, this sensory process can get complicated. Outdoors allows for a much wider range of play because there is generally more space, and sound dissipates. One child can play in the sun, while another can play in the shade. One child can be loud in one area, while children who prefer quiet can play in another. Additionally, natural materials – for example, sticks, stones, leaves, and even the uneven ground – offer a wider variety of sensations, and the multi-textured surfaces provide more tiny muscle adaptations. The materials also vary in terms of color, texture, and smell in ways that manufactured toys do not. To top it all off, the wind and temperature provide tactile experiences. All these factors give more information to the brain, while also focusing a child’s attention. 

Of course, the same things that make outdoor play beneficial also make it messy. There are puddles, mud, tree sap, and so much more. These are the same factors that make outdoors the multi-sensory experience that develops healthy neurological systems. The mess cannot be avoided; instead, we can prepare for it by dressing for the weather. Here are a few tips: 

  • Wear rain gear when the outdoor area is wet or muddy, even if it is not raining. 
  • Have old towels or big rags to dry off when coming back in. 
  • If possible, have a set of clothes for times when it is particularly messy (perhaps an older sibling’s hand-me-downs). 

Because it can be hard work to bundle up a toddler before outdoor play or clean up muddy boots after it, it might be helpful to remember just how beneficial this outdoor play is. Nature is both calming and challenging for young children. And because nature is always changing (the snowy ground turns to mud, which turns to dry dirt, which becomes covered in leaves), children will come back to it again and again. It always holds a few surprises. The multi-sensory experience nature offers also goes a long way in helping children make sense of their worlds, which in turn allows them to tune some experiences out and focus on others. This ability to sift out some stimuli and focus on others will make them more successful, whether they are learning to read or count or simply having a conversation around the dinner table. 


To learn more about St. David’s Center’s Early Childhood Education, go to:  

We currently have openings for toddler and preschool ages for the 2022-2023 ECE school year. Applications for new families are now being accepted and can be found and submitted on our website.  

Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood(Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

More in Insights
Translate »