Room to Roam: Help Your Kids Explore the Outdoors

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Our nation’s children are growing up indoors. Threats both real and imagined have made parents wary of letting their children simply “go out and play.” Add in the parental peer pressure to enroll kids in afterschool sports and activities, and you have a whole generation growing up without the benefit of unstructured free time and outdoor play. 

What can we do about it? How can we help our kids explore the outdoors safely? 

Why It’s Important

Unstructured outdoor play is an important part of helping children grow into healthy adults. According to author Richard Louv, “A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health. Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning — and more — are positively affected by time spent in nature.”

When we deprive our kids of that experience, they are detrimentally impacted, becoming less creative and less self-confident. It’s entirely possible that many of our current problems with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and learning disabilities may be directly related to the changes we’ve made to how we raise our children. Spending time in natural green spaces helps to lift mood and fight off depression. Getting sun exposure boosts immune function and improves vitamin D production, while basking in the glow of an electronic screen can actually damage the developing brain. Clearly, the answer is to make your child put down the iPad and get outside. 

Start Small

If your child hasn’t grown up playing outside regularly, they may be a little averse to the change, so start small. Consider giving them outdoor chores or assignments. It’s easy to enlist your older kids in a little yard work by your side, but even small children can learn to help in the garden. Have them “pick flowers” by pulling dandelions in the flower bed, or give them an assignment to collect rocks along a stream bed. Bring your family on an afternoon nature walk, or buy binoculars and take up bird watching as a group.

Encourage Free Play

The other aspect of the issue is encouraging your child to play independently with other children. This means letting go and not keeping as close a watch, which can be difficult for parents. We’re all terrified of our child getting hurt, but unstructured play encourages the development of social skills and makes children more self-reliant. It builds self-confidence and self-esteem. Give your child ample opportunity to roam alone with friends, but without Mom and Dad standing over their shoulder.

You can start with your backyard. Create a welcome playscape with soft mulches underfoot and a good swingset or gym. Select a variety of safe plants that encourage butterflies and birds to congregate. Take your child to local parks, and bring a book to keep yourself occupied. Give them the space to navigate socially with other children. Organize a camping trip for your child and a few friends, and give them the opportunity to explore safely around the campsite.

Look to your own childhood for inspiration. Are your fondest memories of organized classes and games, or do you look back fondly on riding bikes through the neighborhood with your friends, free from watchful parental eyes? If you take away the electronics and send your child outside, you’ll help to spark their imagination. They will create their own games and drink in the fresh air and healthy sunlight. Alone or in groups, they’ll explore their environment, using their senses to learn about the world. In the process, they’ll make the happy memories that will carry them into a successful adulthood. Let the kids go out and play.