Parenting is arguably a greater challenge now than at any time in the past century. Dual-career families are the norm. Fearing stranger danger, we keep youngsters locked indoors under effective “house arrest.”
One of the greatest casualties of this indoor migration is the most quintessential of childhood activities—outdoor play. Overscheduled children have no time for it. Over-screened children opt for virtual worlds invented by others. And overprotected children are kept inside under constant supervision.
Damming streams, building makeshift forts and dens, holding back the tide with castle walls of sand, creating miniature cities in the garden, being a fireman one minute and Tarzan the next, quickly followed by a super hero—these are the kinds of things that make up real play. It is freely chosen and directed by children, with no external goal or reward. And it often occurs outdoors, immersed in all the “loose pieces” and sensory wonders of the natural world. If you grew up in the 70s or 80s, chances are your childhood was filled with such unfettered, exuberant play.
The Benefits of Play
Play researchers adamantly argue that authentic play is (and has always been) the most critical activity of early childhood, and gives children a number of benefits, including:
- Promoting creativity and imagination, problem-solving and higher IQ scores, and emotional and social development.
- Engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence.
- Fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development, especially in outdoor settings.
- Improving such motor skills as balance, coordination, and agility, critical for growing bodies.
Far from being frivolous, play is the fuel that drives healthy brain development, and the very crucible of learning.
Ways to Encourage Children to Play Outdoors
- Give children a place on the porch, deck or in the bedroom where they can display nature treasures that they find and want to keep.
- Provide simple tools to aid discovery. Children love tools! Include a bug box, trowel, magnifier, etc.
- When you take children to parks and other natural areas, allow them to explore. Let them decide which trails to take. Stay nearby for safety, but don’t interfere or help unless asked.
- Encourage plenty of time outside. Consider taking a walk to the library, store or post office instead of driving.
- If a child asks or remarks about a landmark or natural feature you drive past often, find out more about it and go for a visit.
- Take advantage of the natural resources available in your area. Take children canoeing, kayaking or fishing.
- Take a few leaves from different trees while the children are not looking. Give them the leaves and ask them to find which trees they came from.
- Provide a tree identification book to help children learn about the trees in their own neighborhood.
- In the fall, leave the fallen leaves down for a while so children can run around and shuffle through them.
- Rake up a big leaf pile and let them demolish it. If they’re not pre-schoolers, leave the rake out so they can rebuild it if they want.
- If you have an appropriate area, let older children build a campfire in the backyard. Set safety rules, then stay away while they and their friends discuss hot topics. Check for safety by looking out the window or wandering out to ask if they need more snacks.
- Put out bird feeders that can be seen easily from windows. Let children help feed the birds. Keep a bird book by the window to help them identify what they see.
- Make up challenges for children to do outside, similar to the “Survivor” television show. This is a guaranteed kid pleaser, especially if there is a reward (a gift of time with Mom or Dad, or perhaps a night off from helping with the dishes).