By Rebecca Maglischo
A generation or two ago, summer meant children playing outdoors for long periods of time. Building forts, climbing trees, and jumping off rocks were the highlight of a hot day. A skinned knee was one of the emblems of summer. Many neighborhoods, playgrounds and wilderness spaces are largely quiet today. Children spend more time in structured activities, such as after-school and summer programs, competitive sports, or dance lessons, leaving less opportunity for children to engage in long periods of outdoor playtime or embark on a nature discovery adventure.
Outdoor play fosters children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development. By being outside and surrounded by nature, children experience an ever-changing and free-flowing environment that stimulates all the senses and provides countless opportunities for discovery, creativity, and problem-solving for little scientists. Children are free to explore, move about, and make noise — all delightful forms of self-expression that are often restricted indoors. Many energetic children slow down to dig a hole in sand, watch a ladybug crawl, or spend focused time playing with a stick in a mud puddle and several studies have found that exposure to nature can even reduce symptoms of ADHD and anxiety.
Outdoor play allows a child to be more physically active than indoor play, and allows for healthy, developmentally appropriate risk-taking. The long days of summer, when schools are dismissed, are the perfect opportunity to explore nature with children. Whether your family exploration is contained to your neighborhood or takes you to one of Florida’s wilderness lands, keep in mind The Three P’s for ultimate success.
As parents, we wish we could spare our children from every possible discomfort or danger, but this is an unrealistic goal. Growth and learning doesn’t come without some risk. Be objective about what the real versus perceived risks might be in natural outdoor space and prepare accordingly. A little preparation can help an outdoor adventure be a smashing success. It’s also a great place to involve your children and practice important life skills.
Be sure to do a little legwork beforehand if you are going to a new natural space, like a preserve or wildlife management area. Print out a map and consider downloading a gps app on your phone that will record your route, like AllTrails. It’s also a good idea to check the rules and regulations for an area, just in case. Have everyone pack their own backpacks, but do it together with a master list of the essentials- bug spray, band aids, after bite cream, lots of water, and plenty of healthy snacks. Consider throwing in a notebook and some colored pencils or watercolor paints, in case anyone gets inspired. Finally, encourage each person to pack something they think will be fun to have along the way. This might include a shovel, magnifying glass, binoculars, or an action figurine. A little preparation goes a long way for a great experience!
Slow time is essential to children’s emotional and cognitive well-being. When planning your outdoor adventure, set aside lots of time, hours even. It takes an average of 45 minutes of free play before children dive deep into more complex and evolved play schemes. It takes time for children to figure out who they’re going to play with, what they’re going to play, what everyone’s role will be, and finally to execute their plan. In the natural world, children often collaborate to make up games and rules because there are no prescribed sets of instructions. When exploring outside, school-age children may not be near adults, which gives them time to make up their own rules and solve their own problems without inhibition.
Step back, keep them in view, but let the play unfold and resist the urge to intervene too much. While children benefit greatly by having you engage in play with them, occasionally let them figure out the direction of the play with their peers without adult intervention. It’s helpful for parents to keep an ear to the ground, but appear occupied with other things. This is a great time to model slow time activities like nature journaling, deep investigation of a plant or creature, or just lying on a blanket with a book.
Every outdoor adventure is bound to have a few challenges and the experience of working through these moments together can build a life skill that will shape your family. You can start by modeling positive attitudes about simple discomforts and demonstrating appropriate ways to work through the issue. Being outside in the summer in Florida is bound to be a little uncomfortable at times- bugs, heat, sand, etc. Working through these, rather than avoiding them, creates an opportunity to learn how to work through other discomforts that a child will inevitably face in a lifetime. Speak lovingly of your child’s home and avoid comments that indicate you wish you were somewhere else. This is the place of their childhood, where the memories are bound to be made, and your voice is the feature soundtrack
In Addition to the individual benefits gained by being connected to nature, there is a collective benefit shared by all of us. Our children are future stewards of the earth. To raise adults who are passionate about protecting the environment and preserving our planet, they must first develop a deep love for it. The only way to enable children to grow comfortable in nature is to open the door and let them out. The only way to enable children to fall in love with nature is to give them the time to explore the wonder and awe of the natural world.
Consider loose parts for a variety of open- ended play possibilities. It’s also a great way to bring some nature play home from an outdoor excursion! Examples of loose parts include natural items like sticks and stones of varying sizes, sand, water, small logs, flowers, and leaves. Mix these things with man-made items like hula hoops, balls, jump ropes, stepping stones, muffin pans, colanders, metal stirring spoons, wheelbarrows, buckets, tubes, large blocks, or sifters. The possibilities are endless with these kinds of materials and the search for new treasures is a perfect icebreaker for a hike or outdoor adventure.
When you feel tempted to bail, check your watch and see if you have given the effort enough time. It can be difficult as a parent to ignore the urge to abort when everyone is out of sorts. Make a rule to always give the experience a minimum of 45 minutes before you even consider calling it quits.
Have an activity ready in case your children need a little help engaging- Nature Bingo, I spy, a few books about nature, a field guide matching game, or a challenge to collect as many different flowers as possible. Keep it simple and allow the activity to morph as the children create new rules and renditions.
Outdoor play fosters children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development.