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October 18, 2012

What To Do when Kids Don’t Know How To Play in Nature

My girls playing outside

Adam Sandler’s movie Grown Ups may not seem the most likely reference in nature and kids but there’s an interesting scene I need to relate. At a lake house in New England, five families with kids get together over the 4th of July weekend. The five dads are sitting outside drinking beer and talking about all the fun they had as kids at this house. Meanwhile, the family kids are all inside playing loud video games. Deeply annoyed by the fact that his kids aren’t having fun outdoors, Adam Sandler pulls his screaming boys from the game room and plops them outside, instructing them to play. “But Dad, what do we do now?”

The rest of the movie follows how the kids learn to play with sticks, skip rocks and do what generations of kids have always done outside – play. Now this isn’t the crux of an otherwise forgettable buddy movie but it stresses a good point. Today’s kids are much more at ease in front of an iPad than in front of a pile of sticks and we know that connecting to nature is important – it’s been studied enough by Richard Louv and the Children & Nature Network as well as neuroscientists. Playing outside is good for our kids’ health but it’s also good for our kids’ brains.

If I were to tell you that playing outside is not lost forever, would you believe me? That it just takes a few simple steps to get back into the groove, would you do it? Obviously you’ll have to help but I’d like to offer some ideas. Here’s what to do when kids don’t know how to play in nature.

Reinstate the Sunday Walk

Remember how our grand parents would take family walks with their kids on Sundays, regardless of the season, preferably after lunch? It wasn’t anything fancy nor anything challenging but it was time outside as a family, away from home appliances and comfy couches. This Sunday walk needs to come back and it needs to come back as a habit that’s so normal you won’t even have to think about it.

To make this happen, you need to:

  • Start this Sunday – not next Sunday or when your schedule allows it because let’s face it, family schedules are pretty crazy
  • Start small – a half-mile is enough but you can walk as far as you want if the day is nice
  • Find a green space near you – maybe a park or just a walk around your neighborhood? Find a path along a waterway, a street lined with trees or a grassy hill leading to a viewpoint. Bonus points for a playground or climbing rock along the route
  • Block 20 minutes in the afternoon to do it – walking after lunch helps ease up digestion
  • Take the kids without making a big deal about it – because really, it isn’t

Not only is the Sunday walk a great time to reconnect as a family and talk about stuff that’s been happening all week, but it could be a fun and cheap way to explore the diversity of your area.

Stop on the Trail and Relax

I know I just encouraged you to walk but it’s a fact that kids sometimes get attracted – should I say, distracted? – by stuff along the trail. They will stop for anything from a pile of colorful leaves to interesting rocks, crawling bugs or rabbit holes. If they are intrigued about something, stop and respect your child’s curiosity. Curiosity leads to questions, questions lead to projects, projects outside are awesome. For busy parents, it’s sometimes difficult to stop even for 5 minutes. I know it first hand because when we hike as a family, I like to get from A to B. Stopping along the way slows down my progress and may throw back my plans for the day. So what if my plans are thrown back? Big deal. I’ll just improvise. What I just wrote, I had to teach myself because it didn’t come naturally. My instinct was to keep going no matter what. However I’ve come to let go of my stress and beautifully crafted plans by accepting to stop for my girls. If they want to climb a tree, I let them. If they want to follow a bug, I do it too. If they want to splash in a puddle, why not? Nature is a place of discovery and the more your children want to explore, the more often they’ll want to come back. Bingo!

Make your stop even more playful with:

  • a magnifier to look at minerals
  • a bug box to look at the creepy crawlies up close
  • a water bottle cut in half to scoop out water from a stream and look at tadpoles
  • binoculars to look for owls or raptors in the sky

Cancel an After-School Activity

Yes after-school activities are an opportunity for your child to learn something new, to sharpen a skill, to get social with friends but they are structured activities. And the trouble with structured activities is that they don’t let kids’ brains get creative on their own. The first reaction I see in kids outside, when they’ve spent a lot of time in structured activities, is boredom. Just plain boredom. “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do.” Kids who don’t know what to do get bored without instructions. Now I’m asking, whatever happened to unstructured play?

In the January 2005 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine , an article discusses the importance of free play for kids as promoting intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence, and benefits social interactions. When kids are outdoors left to their own devices, they start to use the part of their brain linked to creativity and figure out a way to play because essentially, having fun beats being bored on the kid scale of what-can-I-do-now. They’ll play the simplest of games – construction games. Or dig a hole with a rock. Or kick a leaf. Or collect pine cones. Or line up sticks. They’ll do something and by inventing their own source of fun, they will gain independence as well.

Obviously free play shouldn’t be restricted to the outdoors. Next time you have a big cardboard box at home, leave it available to your children and see what they can do with it. You’ll be surprised. It’s all about creativity. Remember free play next time you want to sign up junior for this enrichment class or that math tutoring course. It’s time to let loosen up and spend some free time instead.

Enjoy the Outdoors as a Family

It’s a fact, kids follow the example of their parents. Parents are the number role model of their children and unconsciously they transmit the good and the bad to their young crew. If we don’t enjoy or like something or a food, chances are slim our kids will because we simply won’t be offering it in our family dynamics.

Now, think about this. If on a sunny Saturday morning I tell my girls, “go play outside, it’s good for you”! and I stay inside in front of my computer checking YouTube or writing emails. What message am I sending to my girls? The message, whether I want it or not, is that staying indoors is somehow preferable than stepping outdoors even if outdoors is “good for you.” Some parents wonder why their kids don’t play outside anymore but how much time do they spend outside themselves? The answer may be to re-learn to appreciate the outdoors together, a sort of nature rehab for all ages.

That’s why I always, always insist for our family to go out in nature on weekends. That’s why I prefer to walk back or cycle back from school with my girls rather than ride the tube or the bus. That’s why last weekend I suggested we walk back home through a beautifully planted cemetery after lunch at a restaurant, rather than head straight home. I organize playdates with my kids’ friends outdoors, for the same reason.

What could you do that you like, to spend time outside as a family? Here are a few ideas. If you….

  • have a a favorite TV character whose personality you admire, how would they enjoy doing outside?
  • like baking, bake yummy cookies and eat them on the trail
  • enjoy crafts, go outside and build a leaf person or a stone castle with your kids
  • are a maniac pinterest user, create a new “outdoors family” folder and go snap shots of all the things you can do outside
  • remember how to play marbles or jump rope, go play on the trail
  • like singing, go sing all the Sound of Music songs in the hills around your home!
  • get a kick out of science experiments, find science activities outdoors
  • love your iPhone, download the apps MyNature Animal Tracks, TreeID (UK) or bird apps by iBird (UK and US) and go explore!

Now, does it look like you know where to start? Hopefully you do and if you have questions or observations, that’s what the comments are for. Good luck and may your kids learn how to be little Robin Hoods!

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2 Responses to “What To Do when Kids Don’t Know How To Play in Nature”

  1. October 18, 2012 at 11:55 pm, katie stewart said:

    Nice article! My son is almost 6. When he was between 4 and 5 yrs old we struggled mightily to get him outside on the weekends. After a week at daycare he just wanted to be at home. But we persevered in trying to make outside time adventurous and now he loves going out in nature. It was killing me though when he was digging his heels in. Any parents struggling with this now, I feel your pain.

    Reply

    • October 26, 2012 at 10:01 am, Frog Mom said:

      Thanks Katie, kudos to you for keeping up with what you thought was important. I’m really glad you persevered, your son is lucky you are so dedicated to the outdoors. It’s a gift for life.

      Reply

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