As a mom of two who is passionate about exploring the great outdoors with her kids, it came as no surprise to me that a recent ParticipACTION report linked outdoor, open-ended play with positive outcomes in children’s physical, emotional and mental health. My kids are definitely happiest digging in the dirt, making “bird soup” with sand pails, water and twigs or examining the forest floor after it rains.
I would even go a stretch further and say that being active with your kids outdoors has positive outcomes for parents as well. Some of the most difficult months of my life were on my second mat leave, with a toddler and a baby. That season was one of the coldest and snowiest on record in Ontario, kicked off by a devastating ice storm just before Christmas 2013 that left sidewalks and outdoor spaces firmly iced over until spring. Instead of frolicking in the snow, or taking the kids on sleigh rides, we were trapped indoors for months as extreme windchill warnings, polar vortexes and blizzards ensued. It wasn’t risky to go outside, it was downright dangerous. We battled colds, boredom and intense cabin fever. When the spring thaw finally came, we practically sprinted out the door in relief and joy.
It’s easy to enjoy the great outdoors when its warm and sunny. It takes more planning and effort when its not. But if you remember the old adage “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing”, the world becomes your playground. Barring polar vortexes, of course.
Here’s a few reasons why I am a big believer in outdoor play:
1. It’s fun! We went to a conservation area for a family reunion last weekend. There were no play structures. No slides, swings or bouncy castles. There was, however, a sand pit for volleyball, a lake, a beach and wide open green space surrounded by forest. The only toys we brought were a few sand pails, shovels and a blow up balloon. My kids’ favourite part of the day? Digging holes in the beach, dumping lake water in them and jumping up and down. The bigger the splash, the more they giggled.
2. It’s builds physical literacy. Jumping, hopping, skipping and exploring all build coordination, flexibility, and balance. Structured programs such as gymnastics, soccer and swimming are all fantastic for developing gross motor skills, of course, but unstructured play also allows a child the freedom to move as they want. With that freedom, comes happiness.
3. It gives me a break. Well, sort of. They still need a helping hand in certain situations and Em (who in her mind believes she is 4 years old like her sister, not 22 months) is a very determined little girl who has no fear. I do allow them to climb on big structures with moderate supervision, but I also allow them space to test out their limits and explore. This is called “risky play”. I love this quote from the ParticipACTION report:
“Risk is often seen as a bad word— by parents, neighbours, care providers, insurance providers, schools and municipalities. But in play, risk doesn’t mean courting danger—like skating on a half-frozen lake or sending a preschooler to the park alone. It means the types of play children see as thrilling and exciting, where the possibility of physical injury may exist, but they can recognize and evaluate challenges according to their own ability.1,2 It means giving children the freedom to decide how high to climb, to explore the woods, get dirty, play hide ’n seek, wander in their neighbourhoods, balance, tumble and rough-house, especially outdoors, so they can be active, build confidence, autonomy and resilience, develop skills, solve problems and learn their own limits. It’s letting kids be kids— healthier, more active kids”
If it sounds crazy to not “spot” your child at every turn, I’ll share my anecdote from the parenting hall of shame. When Cat was about 2, she fell off her Little Tikes climber onto a concrete paving stone (WGD had moved the climber over when he was cutting the grass) and got a big goose-egg on her forehead. WGD and I were literally within arms reach of her when this happened (she was fine, by the way, though we felt awful). Kids will be kids, and bumps and bruises are a rite of passage in childhood. But I will say this: risky play is one thing, safety is another. In a busy parking lot, they both get strapped into the double stroller.
4. Fresh air is good for the soul. And overall health. In fact, in Scandinavian countries, preschool and daycare programs are generally held outside. There is a cultural belief that fresh air fortifies the body and clears the mind. Though we share a similar climate with Scandinavians and a history of settling a land with imposing forces of nature, I don’t think Canadians have fully accepted this Norwegian friluftsliv philosophy (literally, “open air life”), I have discovered, however, that some Canadian cities offer Forest schools (sadly, none close to me!).
5. It’s a learning experience. As a kid, I loved camping and cottaging with family. My summers were spent catching tadpoles, roasting marshmallows and building huts in the woods (ok, a lean-to made of a couple of sticks and leaves). It was glorious. WGD and I want the same experience for our kids and though lugging gear and kids can be challenging, the payoff is absolutely worth it. Spending time with your kids cuddled up watching the stars at night= priceless.