I read this article that said…

When I was taking an online course on reasoning and constructing good arguments (which I never completed, but that’s another post,) there was one interesting tidbit that was covered: some conclusion might be perfectly correct, but the argument leading to the conclusion could be flawed or unsupportive. That’s the most applicable thing that can be said to the following article, but there’s even more to it, so be patient for a moment as we examine this.

The Portland Family website has an article from April 1st listing 20 reasons why playing outdoors makes children smarter. The first thing to note is that this is not a value judgment; the article does not say this is better for children, which could easily go past as an opinion piece, but actually produces smarter kids, which is a measurable result. This is a tall order for anyone to demonstrate, and even university studies recognize that such a broad categorization (“playing outdoors”) can only imply correlation, since thousands of differing elements can fit within this descriptor. Anyone can say “watching TV is bad” (or “good” if you like,) but it’s not the TV that’s the crucial factor – it’s the programs watched, isn’t it?

Alas, there is no evidence that the claim is even researched – there is a quote from a clinical psychologist right at the beginning, likely meant to imply some kind of rigor within the rest of the article, but it actually fails to support the premise in any way. From there, it goes downhill so spectacularly that I suspected an April Fool’s joke, but the structure seems wrong for that. Let’s look at it in detail.

Seven of the twenty reasons (Outdoor play is a multi-sensory activity; Outdoor play promotes problem solving; Playing outside promotes leadership skills; Playing outside improves listening skills; Outdoor play encourages cooperative play; Time in nature helps children to notice patterns; Time spent outdoors increases persistence) could actually apply equally well, if not even more so, to video games. Five of the twenty (Playing outside brings together informal play and formal learning; Playing outdoors stimulates creativity; Playing outdoors is open-ended; Outdoor play is imaginative; Being in nature improves communication skills) refer to the structure of the activities, and have no reasoning nor support for being limited to outdoor pursuits. I dearly love this quote:

Rocks, stones and dirt present limitless opportunities for play that can be expressed differently every time a child steps outside.

Yes, certainly something that wooden blocks couldn’t provide…

No, not done yet! Now we get to the flat-out wrong assertions, such as “Being in nature develops respect for other living things.” I can only suppose the writer grew up in a city, where hunting wasn’t a widely supported pursuit, but I defy anyone to find any area of the US where this is not prevalent – a quick perusal of the outdoor sections of Walmart stores is enough to cast significant doubt on this gem, as is the amount of trash to be found at any prime fishing spot. Then there’s “Outdoor play widens vocabulary,” which is just stunningly ignorant; how the fucking hell is playing outdoors going to expand your vocabulary? The author says:

While playing outdoors, children may see an acorn, a chipmunk and cumulous clouds.

…which, what, all come with labels attached? Language is about communication, and relies on culture to define and promote. How many different studies does there have to be to demonstrate that expanded vocabulary comes with regular exposure to new words, most commonly experienced through reading? Is this somehow not addressed in routine schooling?

What about “Outdoor play encourages cooperative play“? Does it? Has the author never, ever seen a sporting event, or noticed that kids very frequently engage in competitive games while outdoors? It’s easy to make the claim that sports encourages teamwork, but left to their own devices, kids generally don’t concentrate on the teamwork aspect, but the competitive aspects instead – it takes structure and supervision to manage the cooperative bit, and it’s not clear this supersedes the competition, or even comes close. Personally, I’ve only ever seen children, and adults, concentrate on the win-loss record, and the team was only a means towards that end.

There are two items on the list, a whopping ten percent, that can reasonably be said to apply: Time spent outdoors improves children’s immune systems and Outdoor play increases children’s physical activity level, and even the first is up for grabs, since it’s unclear if greater exposure to immune-stimulants occurs in outdoor areas or in enclosed areas where there are more infected people.

It doesn’t take much examination of the posts here to produce the idea that I think outdoor activities are both interesting and beneficial, and I suspect that the majority of comments on the article are from people who were already convinced of the conclusion before even reading the content. The problem with this is, it isn’t enough to convince anyone not already disposed to the viewpoint, but more importantly, it evades the factors that really do bear some examination. A significant percentage of the items address not the location of the activity, but the structure thereof – problem solving, creativity, understanding (and respect) of natural elements, and pattern recognition are immediate examples. This last one should even be in the spectacularly wrong column, since recognizing patterns ‘outdoors’ (I’m going to assume the author meant natural patterns here, but this demonstrates the problem with overly-broad categories; traffic is ‘outdoors’) is hundreds of times harder than picking up on patterns in our engineered and designed interior spaces. And it’s not so much recognizing patterns at all, but being able to interpret them usefully and realize when there really isn’t a pattern to be found. Ghost stories come from finding patterns, mostly because someone is looking only for those patterns.

Most especially, playing outdoors is going to do nothing for making any child smarter to any noticeable degree; what’s required for that is the ability to use the environment as a learning opportunity, and to take the interest and even ick factors as an opportunity to explain what and why. That means the involvement of either a knowledgeable adult or a useful set of resources. However, this is by no means limited to outdoor activities, and can be fostered anywhere. Despite my regular pursuits outdoors, I have learned hundreds of times more from sitting at my computer – often to determine just what I had found while outdoors, since being outside tends to raise questions, not necessarily answer them. Which is not a bad thing – this alone would have made a perfectly good item to list, had someone used some forethought when writing their article. But the portrayal of ‘outdoors’ as being able to foster more developed brains in children is remarkably shallow and misleading, and dodges the opportunity to point out valuable practices instead. Many parents may be unqualified to answer all of their children’s questions about what they find outdoors, and the interest and value can die right there – unless the parent seeks out the resources that exist to turn it into a useful experience. How hard would it have been to encourage that?

There’s even a faint hint, perhaps only of the author’s motivation, with the item “Playing in nature reduces anxiety.” Not only is this an unsupported statement, and obviously dependent on what kind of nature it might be, there’s two hidden points therein. Playing reduces anxiety – that’s the definition, really. Playing in a ball crawl probably works just as well, but any such statement is more supportable if someone can actually present some facts, for instance. The really key element is the idea that kids somehow need to have their anxiety levels reduced. If this is the case (and this applies differently for every classroom and home experience in existence,) then the treatment shouldn’t be sending them outside to escape for a bit, but changing the structure that’s producing the anxiety in the first place.

There’s nothing that indicates this article is anything more than settling on a topic and then looking for ways to support it… frankly, that’s all I see, and hopefully this wasn’t a paid assignment. Yet the discerning person can look at the factors listed to support the conclusion and find a rough guide in defining a more rewarding and stimulating environment that may well increase intelligence. However, taking my word for it isn’t a recommended practice; do the research instead. Or find an article that gives sources and support for its content.

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