Spending time outside is great for kids’ physical health, mental health, and cognitive development. Plus, outdoor play is FUN!!
But although most parents say they would like their kids to have more outdoor time, they also see lots of barriers that prevent them from making it happen. How do we overcome those barriers and go play outside? Look below for tips on coping with: lack of access to nature, safety issues, lack of time, the inconvenience of muddy clothes, dressing for the weather, lack of interest in the outdoors (for child or parent!) and lack of playmates outside.
Perceived barrier: Lack of access to nature
(it’s too expensive, too far away, I lack the skills)
In several surveys, modern parents and children often say that there is no nature where they live. They say that outdoor recreation is too expensive, or that outdoor opportunities are too far away, or that they lack the knowledge and skills to participate in outdoor recreation. When asked to describe outdoor recreation, they often talk about things like national parks, ski areas, theme parks, water skiing, kayaking, and mountaineering. If you had asked a parent in the 1950’s where their kids play outside, they would have said: the backyard, the garden, the park, or the school yard. If you’d asked what activities their kids did outside, the first things that would come to mind would be: climb trees, dig in the dirt, and throw rocks.
Outdoor time doesn’t just mean a week-long camping trip in Yellowstone. It could mean just a little time outside every day on that little strip of grass at the corner of the apartment parking lot. It could be walking to school and noticing the plants, rocks and bugs in the neighbors’ yards. It could mean finding a little “patch of nature” that you can visit once a week. Maybe that’s a city park, but maybe it’s an empty lot in a residential neighborhood. (when my girls were little, we visited an empty lot two blocks from the Microsoft corporate campus, we saw coyotes, rabbits and snakes, and picked all the blackberries we could eat.) By looking further afield, you may find hiking trails, lakes, streams, arboretums, botanical gardens, farms, nature preserves, beaches, sandboxes, and other places to dig in the dirt. And for most of them, you can bring a picnic lunch and stay all day without spending any money.
For ideas for outdoor activities in an urban area, search online. Here’s a couple blog posts to get you started: http://projectwildthing.com/posts/view/296 and http://projectwildthing.com/posts/view/304.
If you feel like you lack the knowledge or skills for outdoor adventures, start small and simple with visits to the local park. When you’re ready, you can take on new challenges on your own. Or visit local outdoor supply stores to see if they offer classes, or check with your local parks department for classes and for group outings with an experienced guide.
You can also check out websites for lots of tips on outdoor activities with kids and how to make them successful. Try http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/family.html
Perceived barrier: Safety (traffic, stranger danger, etc.)
Parents often say “it’s just not as safe for kids to play outdoors as it used to be.” But statistics actually show that the rate of abduction by strangers has stayed steady for many years, and the risk of car-pedestrian accidents has decreased significantly.
- Traffic: Choose outdoor play areas and neighborhoods with minimal traffic risks. Teach your child pedestrian safety rules (crossing at crosswalks, looking both ways, not running out into the street after a ball, and so on). Don’t allow children to play in the street. Yes, many of us played in the street when we were young, but drivers expected that then and watched out for it… they don’t now.
- Note: “children at play” signs are not shown to be helpful at reducing risk – they don’t have much impact on driver behavior, but they do lead parents and children to have a false sense of confidence – which then leads them to behavior that puts them at risk
- If you have specific concerns about traffic in your neighborhood, try contacting your city to see if there’s anything they can do. (here’s an example from my hometown.)
- Stranger danger: Teach your child reasonable precautions about strangers, without frightening them.
- Some basics: it’s OK to talk to strangers when mom or dad are right there with you, but your parents aren’t there, don’t talk to the stranger. If an adult says they need help (with directions, with finding a lost puppy, etc.) then go to a trusted adult and let them know. Be sure your children know their full names, parents’ phone numbers, and where the trusted adults are near their home.
- Enlist your neighbors. Get to know your neighbors, and make sure your kids get to know them too. Tell them you’ll help look out for their kids. Encourage them to help keep an eye on your kids.
- Child’s Age: some parents worry about taking babies outside – “they might get dirty”, “they might eat dirt.” Read this article on benefits of outdoor play for babies: www.janetlansbury.com/2014/06/your-babys-call-of-the-wild-guest-post-by-angela-hanscom/
- Risk of injury in outdoor settings: Unlike a modern playground, a natural setting has not been intentionally designed to meet rigorous safety standards. There may be sharp edges and hard surfaces and thorns and stinging insects. Whenever you’re out in nature with your child, be aware of potential hazards, show them to your child, and educate her about how to be safe if she encounters those things on solo adventures. There’s no need to frighten, but it is a good idea to teach caution and a healthy respect for nature.
- Although there are potential risks outdoors, parents should remember that developing the habit of staying indoors all the time also carries risks: increasing the long-term chances of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Perceived barrier: No time in the schedule
- Homework: Some parents say “my kid has so much homework to do, it takes him forever, and we don’t have time left to go outside.” If that child was allowed to run and play outdoors for a half hour after school, research indicates that would help him concentrate better when he did settle down to homework, thus perhaps reducing homework time.
- Extracurriculars: Children certainly benefit from organized activities that teach specific skills (e.g. piano lessons, baseball team) but there are unique benefits to unstructured play time, especially if that takes place outdoors. Finding a balance in the week’s schedule that allows for some unstructured time is the best option for maximizing a child’s learning potential.
- Can your time do double-duty? Instead of driving to a store across town, could you walk outdoors to a store nearby? Instead of sitting in the car with one child while you’re waiting to pick up the other one from school, can you go for a short walk or play outside? If you work out in a gym, could you take your exercise outside and do it while your child plays?
- Consider looking for a nature-based preschool or “forest kindergarten” to do double duty between school and outdoor play. Don’t worry that your child will miss out on academic skills if they don’t spend their preschool hours sitting at desks with pencil and paper. Outdoor time is great for brain development and they will be very ready for school when it comes around.
Perceived barrier: Outdoor play is inconvenient
- Dirty clothes and dirty kids: Outdoor play is definitely messy. Parents may need to increase their tolerance for mess. It also helps to plan ahead: carry a full extra set of clothes, including socks and shoes, in the car at all times. Carry a washcloth and some water in case you need to scrub the child down before putting on the clean clothes. It also helps to have a towel to cover up the car seat if needed.
- Parents’ responsibilities: Parents say it’s hard to get things done (like cooking dinner) if the child is playing outside and needs to be supervised.
- Can the child play outside without supervision? (with clear boundaries and safety proofing set up in advance, of course)
- Can you team up with another parent and take turns supervising?
- Can you take any of your work outside? You may not be able to do laundry outside, but with modern technology, you may be able to make phone calls, read and respond to email, catch up on Facebook, or read materials for work while your child plays outdoors. (Note: make sure you don’t spend all your time wired to the screen – parents benefit from outdoor play too!)
- Note: If you find your kids are often being wild indoors when you’re trying to work, try taking a break to go outside and play. When you return inside, they may settle down.
Perceived barrier: Kids say outside is uncomfortable
- Too hot: Plan your outings for early in the morning, or late in the evening. Consider lightweight sun-protective clothing, and a lightweight hat with a brim.
- Too cold / too wet: Teachers at outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens (go to YouTube to learn more about these!) often say “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.” It’s well worth investing in a good pair of waterproof boots (I love my son’s Bog Boots – they cost more than I ever spend on kids’ clothes, but they are easy for him to walk in, unlike most boots that flop around on kids’ feet, and they’re so waterproof he can wade in streams without his socks getting wet) and rain gear (a friend swears by the Muddy Buddy) Here are some more tips for how to dress for the outdoors in winter: www.raisingwildones.com/2014/01/how-to-dress-kids-for-winter-outdoor-play.html and how to dress for rain: www.modernparentsmessykids.com/2012/10/outdoor-preschool-how-to-dress-for-hours-of-rain-cold.html
- Some young children do not like getting their hands dirty. Offer them shovels and tools to use, or you might even offer lightweight gloves if needed.
- Good shoes are important: flexible soles are nice for dexterity, but they need to be thick enough that the child can’t feel rocks and sticks through them. Avoid open sandals and clogs that let in (and then trap) sand, pebbles, and bark. (I like water shoes for summer days at the lake or beach, as they can wear them in and out of the water and protect their feet.)
Perceived barrier: Kids aren’t interested
- Kids would rather stay inside and watch TV / play video games / use the computer.
- Don’t assume this to be true. When surveyed, many kids say they prefer outdoor time.
- This is less likely to be true for kids who have spent a lot of time outside since they were small. It’s more likely to be true for kids who haven’t had any significant positive experiences outside. Getting those kids out to have those experiences may help.
- Sometimes transitions are the hard part – you may have to force the issue of turning off the screen and getting outside, but after a while outside they usually settle in.
- “There’s nothing to do!” If you have been taking your child outside to play since he was young, you’re less likely to hear that complaint. But if you have a child who is used to the high intensity stimulation of video games and amusement parks, it can be hard to slow down to enjoy the quieter pleasures of the outdoors. Having ideas for what to do outdoors may help.
- Invest in some outdoor toys for your yard (sandbox, climber, kiddie pool, bikes, balls… even simple things like a spray bottle or bubble wand a child can only play with outdoors can entice them outside)
- Even in your neighborhood patch of nature, you can find interesting things to collect like rocks or acorns. You can gather them and make a “museum display” in their natural setting. You can take home one or two as a treasure. (See tips here for how to not get overwhelmed by your child’s nature collections.)
- Try outdoor scavenger hunts. Search online for lots of ideas on this.
- Encourage pretend play outside: pretend to be animals, pretend to be Bigfoot.
- Set themes for the day, like an animal of the day, or sense of the day, or bug of the day, and tie games and observations into that.
- Use the WildTime app, or go to http://projectwildthing.com/wildtime for all their tips. Or search for ideas at www.nwf.org/Activity-Finder.aspx
- Try these tips for keeping kids engaged on hikes: http://blog.childrenandnature.org/2014/06/06/how-to-keep-young-hikers-happy-nature-games-and-other-strategies-for-more-fun-on-the-trail/
- For older kids, try geocaching or letterboxing.
- Try to allow your child some freedom outside. Kids who are given a little extra independence are more interested in going out to play.
Perceived barrier: There’s no one to play with
It’s often disappointing to kids if they go outside to play and discover they’re the only ones there. Here are some strategies:
- Find families who are focused on spending time outdoors: Check out your local parks department, campgrounds, and outdoor supply stores for classes, camps, and guided hikes. When you attend, make an active effort to network with other parents and set up future activities together. You can also search online (Meetup.com, Facebook) for “children and nature” groups, or look for local outdoors clubs, or search for a Nature Club (or learn how to start your own) at www.childrenandnature.org/movement/naturalfamilies/clubs/
- If your child takes outdoor sports classes near your home, try to connect with some of those families who live nearby. It could be they’d also enjoy unstructured playtime outdoors too.
- Encourage your existing circle of friends to play outdoors: When it’s your turn to host a playdate, make it an outdoor one. When friends are planning a gathering, encourage them to consider an outdoor site. Even if you’ve invited a child over to play on a rainy day where most of your time will be inside, be sure to spend a little time outdoors. Having some fun, unique outdoor play options can sweeten the deal.
- Connect with the neighbor kids and parents.
- Let them know that you would love a neighborhood where kids play outside together. Talk about how to make that happen. Offer to supervise other children.
- Don’t worry if the kids are a wide range of ages. One of the benefits of unstructured outdoor play is that it works really well for multi-aged groups.
- Try setting an “outdoor hour” at least once a week (hopefully more) when everyone tries to get their kids out together and where kids can rotate between multiple yards.
- Set one day a week as “walk to school” day. Or organize walk-pools where parents take turns escorting kids on a walk to school instead of all the parents driving alone.
Perceived barrier: “I’m just not an outdoors person…”
Some parents feel like they should get their kids outside more, because they have heard about the benefits of outdoor time. But they find themselves dreading outdoor time because they have not enjoyed it in the past. It’s OK to start small, and with simple things that seem manageable to you. Yes, some parents take their kids wilderness camping or mountain biking or white water rafting. Maybe you just take your child to the playground often, or walk at botanical gardens, or go to the zoo, or just notice nature around you as you shop downtown. Yes, some families spend hours outside every day and go on week-long campouts every summer. You may manage one hour a week of intentional outdoor time. Do what you can. You may find that as you start small and have experiences you enjoy you may become more of an outdoors person and look forward to these times.
What will you do?
Some experts recommend that parents commit to a “green hour” – one hour a day that their kids spend outside. Does that seem do-able to you? Could you make that a goal to shoot for, even if you know there’s lots of days you won’t make it? On the days you do, congratulate yourself!
By spending time with our kids outdoors, we can develop life-long habits of getting outside and being active. This will mean our kids experience less stress, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, ADHD and sensory issues, and depression. And they’ll probably do better in school. It’s well worth the effort!