Tag Archives: camp

Depth or Breadth in Kids’ Activities?

happy child holding soccer ball, hockey stick and guitar

When it comes to choosing extracurricular activities for a child, or picking the best summer camp, some parents choose a focus for their child early on: “we’re a Little League family” or “all of us play stringed instruments” can even be a big part of their family identity.

For my family, I chose to take an approach informed by an understanding of brain development: the brain (and body) to develop well need both novelty and repetition, and the ability to learn in places we feel safe. And we need some down time for relaxation and fun.


When we try new things, we stretch ourselves, applying past learning in new ways to accomplish new goals. This gives us more new skills to apply to future challenges. We also have lots of opportunities to find new things that we love doing.

When choosing activities, I also keep in mind the multiple intelligences approach. I want my children to develop in all areas: music classes to build musical intelligence, story time and theatre classes to build linguistic intelligence, wilderness classes to build naturalist intelligence, sports for kinesthetic intelligence… a little of everything to build their brains and bodies.


When we have the chance to do the same thing again and again, we have the chance to build mastery. To get really good at a physical skill. To build a deep knowledge of a topic that we have a passion for. To explore all the facets of that interest. Where novelty gives breadth to their learning, repetition gives depth.

If you’re a more authoritarian style parent, you might choose the thing you want them to excel at and focus there. If your parenting style is more permissive or authoritative, you may follow their lead. (A permissive parent may be more willing to let them quit if they get bored, an authoritative or authoritarian parent is more likely to push them to stick to it and build their persistence as they build their skills.)

Personally, I try for mostly breadth before age 10, and then specialization after age 10 or so. I feel like that’s enough years to expose them to all sorts of experiences and skills. But around 10 is when it starts getting harder to be new to a skill – for example, if you join your first soccer team at age 10, you may be playing with kids who have been on soccer teams for five years already.

Safety and Belonging

We all learn best (and have more fun) in settings where we feel safe and feel like we belong. (When we feel safe, our brains produce the hormone oxytocin, which creates a high degree of neuroplasticity / openness to learning.) So, when choosing activities, it’s worth keeping this in mind. Some people choose a local club / YMCA or parks program that offers LOTS of different activities in the same venue and where they’ll often encounter the same kids again and again. We go to the same family camp every year, where our son has tried out: lagoon swimming, row boating, ping pong, hiking and more. Some families have their kids always attend programs that their kids’ friends are doing.

Down Time

In addition to novelty and repetition, our brains and bodies also need down time! We need time to process and integrate all that new learning. Time where no one else is telling us what to do but we get to decide can also lead to creativity and independent decision making. So, resist the temptation to over-schedule your child’s every minute in pursuit of maximum brain development and college application resume building. Make sure you give them the downtime too.

What does this look like?

This is my experience… I won’t claim it’s the only or best way to do anything, but it is a sample of how this approach can play out.

During the school year, my kids typically do a couple of extracurricular activities. Usually, that was one physical activity – soccer team, swim lessons, dance class – and one that was more cerebral – theater class, music lessons, art classes, science class or coding. And the other afternoons and weekend days are down time. (For my youngest, it’s also been church every Sunday morning which includes both spiritual learning and fun playground time or game time.)

During the summer, they usually do 3 or 4 weeks of camp, a few weeks of family vacation or camping, and the other weeks are totally laid-back, do anything you want to do at home weeks.

For all three, we did lots of novelty up to age 11 or 12. For my oldest, at that point, he wanted to focus fully on theatre. So, from then on, it was all theatre! (Well, there was that one year where he surprised us by joining the middle school tennis team when he’d never before played tennis…) But what I found interesting was how his diverse background played in: in one show, they had to mime shelling peas… it was clear from watching the kids that he was the only one who had actually done that before! When they needed someone to roller skate – he was one of the kids who knew how. All the things he had done before informed this new focus.

My middle child continued to pursue diverse interests: one summer was herbal medicine, fashion design, and electric guitar. She has a computer science brain that loves to gather data and find patterns, so the more data, the better! There were a few times during their adolescence that both my older kids lamented the fact that they had friends who were “experts” in something – baseball, equestrian skills… because that had been their primary in-depth focus since childhood. My kids went through brief periods of wishing they’d done that, but then came out the other side happy to have had the diversity.

With my youngest, we tried to do as much of this approach as we could, but he is autistic and when he was younger would easily get overloaded / overstimulated by too much input, so we chose fewer extracurriculars and shorter programs (half day camps vs. full day camps, etc.) Just as he gained the ability to do more, we went into pandemic lockdown and we had fewer options for a few years – I feel like we’re still sort of finding our way back from there, but last summer, he did the theatre camp, family camp and swimming lessons he had done in previous years and he tried the completely-new-to-him ultimate frisbee camp. And I continue to feel that this balancing of novelty and repetition is the right approach for us.

Now, I have to acknowledge my privileges… I know not everyone may have the same options I do. I have the blessings of living in an area with a huge array of children’s activities, and also of having income and work schedule flexibility which allows me to make these choices. I know that what I just described is not within everyone’s reach. But even within the realm of free story-times, online classes that are accessible in areas where in-person program options are limited, “cheap date” ideas and activities we do with our kids at home, I think it is always helpful to have this some novelty / some repetition approach.

If you liked this article, you might also find “Acceleration or Enrichment for Gifted Kids” an interesting read.

Image source: https://www.multiplemayhemmamma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/overscheduled-kids.jpg

Getting Outside: Overcoming the Barriers to Outdoor Play

Spending time outside is great for kids’ physical health, mental health, and cognitive development. (Read about those benefits here). 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.)
  • 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. Some parents 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 (or I also use the towel to dry off wet swings and slides on winter playgrounds.)
  • 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 Bogs rain boots and snow boots– they cost more than I usually spend on kids’ clothes (I get all their clothes at consignment shops), 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. We liked our Oakiwear rain pants and rain jacket. A friend swears by the Muddy Buddy Overalls.  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.
  • 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!