For many of us riding out January, it’s cold. And wet and gray. And thus very tempting to stay snuggled inside until the spring sun shines again. However, we are here to encourage you to face the elements and head outdoors with your children. With a little patience (yes, boots, mittens and hats) and fortitude (how many times can you holler, Just five more minutes!) you can make a world of a difference in the worldview and development of your children.
Pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, authored the bestselling book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, and she is a huge proponent of outdoor play. She explains, “Movement through active free play, especially outside, improves everything from creativity to academic success to emotional stability.” And that outdoor play is “the most beneficial gift we as parents…can bestow on our children.”
Here are just a few of the benefits outdoor play can provide:
Movement. We all know physical movement is important to a child’s development. Giving kids an easy way to stretch their legs and move freely is best through the wide open spaces of outdoor active play. Letting them run, climb, wrestle, kick balls, ride their bike…this all contributes to large gross motor skill development and physical health.
Sunshine. Yes, even in the cold. Our bodies work best with brief every day sun exposure, facilitating vitamin D production, which plays an important part in many of the body’s functions (namely the immune system). Not to mention it’s a major mood lifter to feel the warm sun on your face in the middle of winter (or anytime, for that matter).
Life success skills. Harvard Health’s term is executive function—the skills that help children plan, troubleshoot, prioritize, negotiate and multitask—and these can be more readily cultivated with unstructured time and room-to-roam. The endless outdoors then becomes the perfect backdrop to learn and practice these skills, especially with time alone or with others to stretch their imagination, amuse themselves and figure things out independently.
Risk. Yes, it’s a word and a feeling we as parents want to mitigate, however that may not be in the best interest of our children. Life is an uncertain beast—our children need to learn how to face problems head-on, assessing how to best navigate next steps. The great outdoors provides all sorts of large and small adverse conditions (climbing a fallen tree or asking another child to play) to test confidence and bravery as children play.
Creativity. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv wrote, “Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses…In nature a child finds freedom, fantasy, privacy…” These and more produce imagination, sparking the creative work to inspire more complex levels of play.
Appreciation for nature. The future of our planet is, quite literally, in the hands of our children. The more we can encourage connection with the Earth, the more they are bound to fight for her endless wonders as adults.
Responsibility and ownership. Look out for your little brother or Look at your watch, and come back inside in 30 minutes or Be sure to share the bucket—these seemingly small asks, and the autonomy to make decisions, give kids a huge confidence boost. Hand over responsibility and ownership about where to go when outside, what tools to use, whom to play with and any other decision about their chosen space.
And if you need a gentle nudge on how to actually make it happen:
Embrace the elements. If it’s cold, add an extra layer. If it’s wet, give them an umbrella. If it’s hot (lucky you!), use sunscreen. Don’t let the weather deter you or your kids—in fact, exploring on adverse conditions can often be the most fun.
Set a timer. If there are groans and complaining, set limits. Make the playtime finite so all know the boundaries (and the exact minute they can come inside).
Make it routine. Setting daily habits are important for children to thrive, so add outdoor playtime to the schedule. By making it a regular occurrence there’s bound to be less pushback once you are in the groove.
Provide tools. If your kids are at a loss for what to do, give them a few hammers to bang around, shovels to dig in the dirt, buckets to collect worms, paint brushes to “paint” water on the sidewalk, chalk to draw, balls to throw. Usually a few simple prompts will have them off and running.
And, if all else fails, promise hot chocolate upon return inside!
A few resources we love that encourage outdoor play and nature appreciation (for both caregivers and children):
Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of the Natural World by Julia Rothman
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
We are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines
Rain! by Linda Ashman
Flowers Are Calling by Rita Gray
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient and Confident Kids by Linda McGurk (the author’s blog, Rain or Shine Mamma, is also a great resource!)
How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson (the author’s TED talk about the same subject is also worth a watch!)