Two time-tested tactics become trends: teach kids phonics and get them outside

Mom and young daughter look at open workbook.

We know almost instinctively that experiencing nature is good for kids in so many ways and that reading, unlike speaking, doesn’t just happen, starting at a particular age or developmental stage. Yet history shows that what we “know” can get replaced by the “new”—until we discover important connections are missing.

Last spring Rasmussen College published "4 Emerging Trends in Early Childhood Education," by Brianna Flavin. Two of the four trends were “a new focus on phonics in literacy instruction” and “educating with nature.” Merriam-Webster defines phonics as “a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, and especially syllables.” 

Phonics makes a comeback

It’s not that phonics ever vanished, but over the years—decades, even—other systems and theories have sometimes downplayed or overshadowed its relevance. Flavin quotes Dr. Christina Williams, who credits the reporting of Emily Hanford as influencing an early childhood education (ECE) re-examination of phonics instruction. Williams suggests, “the trouble begins in universities not teaching teachers to understand phonics instruction.”

A Nov. 4 Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star editorial titled, "Phonics Makes a Surprising Comeback,” says, “Research shows that the ability to decode (sounding out words) really is what separates good readers from struggling ones.” The editorial says that a paper from APM Reports notes that “once students have learned enough phonics, authentic literature becomes ‘decodable.’”

The editorial also quotes literacy researcher Timothy Shanahan as saying, "'Experts usually recommend 20 to 30 minutes or so of daily phonics instruction in grades K-2,’" with the Free Lance Star adding, "or up to 200 hours overall.”

Reading is not natural

In October 2019 Education Week published "How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science Says," by Sarah Schwartz and Sarah D. Sparks. It focuses on the idea that reading is not a “natural” process. They write, “Written language is a code. Certain combinations of letters predictably represent certain sounds.” They add that for decades, research has been clear that “Teaching young kids how to crack the code—teaching systematic phonics—is the most reliable way to make sure that they learn how to read words.”

While acknowledging that kids eventually “need to be able to recognize most words automatically and read connected text fluently, attending to grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure,” they say that “If children can’t decipher the precise words on the page, they’ll never become fluent readers or understand the passages they’re reading.”

Find fun ways to learn phonics fundamentals
a group of two workbooks and two flash cards to teach kids phonics skills beginning sounds preschool workbook and a page from inside phonics review  grades 1-3 workbook and a page from inside word families flash cards with two cards showing phonics made easy flash cards with two cards showing

Workbooks such as Beginning Sounds for preschoolers and Phonics Review for grades 1-3 can help introduce and/or reinforce phonics skills, and Phonics Made Easy Flash Cards  for ages 6 and up can make it feel like a game. Activities such as Robo Deli Syllable Snack Time, Hippo’s Tasty Syllables, and Feed the Robot, all available on Anywhere Teacher, an online learning program for ages 2-8, also add lots of fun to phonics fundamentals.

online game for kids that teaches syllables feed the hungry hippo 2-4 syllable words
Enter the outdoor classroom

As for “educating with nature,” one of the other 4 emerging trends that Rasmussen College­ identified in early childhood ed, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” back in 2005 in his book Last Child in the Woods. But kids haven’t really “caught up” on their outdoor time. In 2016, Helen Briggs, writing "All You Need to Know About Nature Deficit Disorder," for the BBC revisited Louv’s work, saying, “He argues that all of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and perhaps more vulnerable to negative moods or reduced attention span.”

The Rasmussen College article points to the increasing popularity of the forest school movement, originating in Scandinavia, as contributing to growing interest in connecting kids to nature. (The U.K. has a Forest Schools Association.) Flavin says that “the trend of teaching through nature could also show up in other ways, such as teachers making a conscious effort” to “incorporate natural elements into the classroom or dedicating time for outdoor exploration and play.”

As Danielle Cohen, writing for Child Mind® Institute, notes in "Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature," “…most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.” Specifically, she says it builds confidence, promotes creativity and imagination, promotes responsibility, provides different stimulation, gets kids moving, makes them think, and reduces stress and fatigue.

a fall scene of kids in coats and hats laughing and playing in fallen leaves

Clearly, telling kids to practice their phonics and also to go outside and play, far from being relics of the one-room schoolhouse, instead, spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S for 21st century tech-savvy kids.