I have been asked to contribute with 19 other expert bloggers to the Blog Series, Happy New Year, Healthy Kids http://theinspiredtreehouse.com/happy-new-year-healthy-kids-home/ about exploration with children outdoors. Here is my contribution:
I have such fond memories of my childhood. My best friend, Jessica lived right behind me in an aged neighborhood in the rural town of Essex Junction, Vermont. Everyday after school, I would rush out into my backyard and up to the fence that surrounded our property. I would pull on the door my father carefully crafted for us in order to get to my friend's yard. The door would open up to Jessica’s place.
“Do you want to play pretend?” we’d ask each other simultaneously, and the adventures would begin. We were often lost in our own imaginary world among the trees -- riding unicorns into the night and running away from dragons or some other “bad guy.” All our senses were engaged. We felt alive and vigorous.
Fully alert, our minds were free to explore all the possibilities of play. We got creative with whatever was available to us. A stick became a magic wand or a horse to ride upon. A small cluster of trees became the perfect place for a jail. A large hill became a great way to roll or run away from a villain – gaining momentum as we went down. The possibilities were limitless. Our play was ever changing and constantly inspired new play scenes. We would get so lost in our imaginary worlds that our parents often had to remind us to take time to eat.
Many would say, “Gone are the days when kids can play outside all day.” Due to real fears creeping into our society today (i.e., fears of insects, strangers, the unknown, litigation), many children are spending less and less time playing outside. This is starting to affect their health in ways that would surprise most seasoned professionals.
However, I’m here to say there is hope. Great hope. The truth is – we all want our children to explore the great outdoors with more freedom than we give them today. We desperately want to. But we are scared. We are scared that if we do give them some freedom – something very “bad” may happen. We must move beyond all fears, all lies that all children are in danger all of the time. That it is no longer safe for them to independently explore nature with their friends. We must not lose total faith in human kind – going to extremes, in which children are totally restricted to the point that they are sitting and sedentary for most of their young lives. To continue on this path is wrong.
We are at the point where we are starting to cause more harm than good by constantly restricting children's ability to play, move, and explore the great outdoors. Studies are showing that children are getting weaker and uncoordinated over the past thirty years or more. Lack of play outdoors is also affecting their vision, balance, and their ability to control their emotions. They are having trouble problem solving, using creativity, and attending for long periods of time. Read more here: WHY CHILDREN FIDGET: And what we can do about it. We need to put an end to this. Children need the freedom to play, unhindered by adult fears.
My new year’s wish for children is that we’ll begin to put more emphasis on the whole child, respecting their human needs and rights -- giving them trust, love, and the freedom to explore and move again. I hope that we can let go of all fears getting in the way of this necessity – this human need to play.
How do we take these first steps towards more independent exploration for children? By making some small changes. Here are a few ideas on how to start fostering more independence with outdoor play:
1. Think Big. The more space children have to roam - the more opportunities they will have to explore. I've seen this countless times, especially with larger groups of children. When children are given a small space to explore, they are quicker to lose interest. For instance, allowing them to venture out of the backyard, especially for older children - can really open up their world. If you have access to woods, allow them to explore. Make boundaries if you are worried about them getting lost. If they ride a bike, allow them to bike to the neighbor's house to play with friends. The more space they are given, the more opportunities for creative play.
2. Turn off the TV. I'm a big proponent of offering screen time only as a "treat." Often, when children give a fixed time everyday for screen time it can back-fire. The child comes to expect that thirty minutes to full hour-long screen session every day. This can trump playing outdoors, especially if children only have limited to time to play during weekdays because of school, homework, and organized sports. Instead, offer an occasional movie or video game time (for example, once a week or every other week) for a rare treat. This will avoid feelings of entitlement to screen time on a regular basis, and children will become more excited and appreciative of the screen time they are given. With everything, moderation is key.
3. Give the gift of time. One of the biggest barriers to children not having enough time to play outdoors is actually due to lack of time. Children are so scheduled out these days, that playtime is becoming a rarity. Even worse, most of the playtime takes place indoors. Try to be more conscious of this in the new year. Play outdoors is essential to developing healthy sensory systems needed to foster healthy bodies and minds. Allow your children ample time to play outdoors every day!
4. Step back. If you truly want your children to be self-reliant and independent when it comes to playing outdoors, than step out of the picture. Let them play outdoors with friends. Try not to hover over them. At TimberNook, we intentionally teach adults to step back and allow children to explore. When the adults become the focal point, children will often seek constant reassurance and look to adults to direct their play. If you are uncomfortable with your children outdoors alone, go out with them. While the kids are playing with their siblings, alone, or with friends -- make yourself busy and not-so-obvious. Try doing yard work. It will keep you focused on chores and allow the children to do what they do best - PLAY!
5. Keep it simple. You don't need a lot of toys outdoors for your children to play with. In fact, toys can sometimes distract children from exploring or using the natural environment that surrounds them. Too many toys can create chaos and children end up jumping from one piece of equipment or toy to the next, rarely picking up a stick or diving into their imagination.
I recommend having just a few items total - that are spread far apart. One would be a single swing that hangs off of a tree. One would be a bicycle. The final one would be a dirt pit, access to water, and some old pots and pans. That's it. You'd be surprised with what they can do with these simple items, combined with everything else nature provides. If you live in a snowy region, I recommend some good sleds.
Step on over to the Inspired Treehouse to learn more about fostering healthy kids in 2015
with the Happy New Year, Healthy Kids blog series: http://theinspiredtreehouse.com/happy-