An article on how to get your kids to play outside would have seemed like an Onion headline back when…well, back anytime before The Onion. I was a bookworm and I still spent a ton of time outside. My kids, not so much.
If you want to get your own offspring outdoors for any reason — including simply allowing you some peace at your computer — here are some wise tips from Angela Hanscom, founder of TimberNook and author of the new book: “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.”
Three Ways to Get Your Kids to Play Independently Outdoors — And Loving It! by Angela Hanscom
I asked a group of children one day what their favorite thing was to do outdoors. One little boy’s answer alarmed me. “I don’t play outside anymore,” he asserted. “It’s too boring. All that’s out there is some trees, grass, and a dumb playset that I outgrew when I was 5-years-old.” There it was, the plain truth laid out for me — that the outdoors is considered “mundane” in some children’s eyes today. Plenty of children would prefer to play indoors and on electronics versus enjoying a little adventure of the real kind when given the choice.
This is one of the most frustrating situations for a lot of parents these days. Maybe you are a parent that desperately wants your children to play outdoors, but are finding that they tend to favor their time inside. Or if your children play outside, perhaps they tend to stick around the house, their sense of adventure limited to the backyard. In order to increase their confidence with outdoor play, it really just takes practice–and a lot of it!
At the same time, sending children outdoors and saying, “go play” may be a little intimidating at first for some children. Here are three simple ideas to inspire independent outdoor play in your children:
- Catch Up on Some Yard Work
Sometimes children, especially younger children, feel more comfortable playing outdoors when they know an adult is present. This is a good way to start introducing children to free play outside. Consider getting out the rakes, shovels, or garden equipment and doing some yard work. This will keep your mind and body busy, while your child plays freely in the yard.
In the beginning, you may find that your child wants to “help” with the chores. Let them. Get them a child-sized shovel or rake to assist you. Oftentimes, children grow tired of “helping,” and eventually wander off to explore or start playing. If you don’t have any chores to do, perhaps you bring out a book to read or your latest knitting or woodworking project. Again, sometimes simply being present is enough to get your child to start exploring on their own in the backyard.
- Set Out Loose Parts
Another way to inspire children to play independently outdoors is to set out some “loose parts” in the yard. Loose parts are basically materials that children can use to design, create, move, and play with. They are often used to inspire creative play in preschools. However, I’ve found that even children up to age thirteen will use them in their play schemes. Some examples are wooden planks, sticks, baskets, fabric or blankets, pots and pans, pieces of rope, shells, duck tape, and clothespins.
Large loose parts such as planks and sticks can be kept on the ground and organized in piles to inspire the children to build and create. Smaller loose parts such as baskets, rope, tape, and shells can be placed near the larger loose parts. Observe to see which objects your children play with the most. By providing loose parts, you are giving children tools to experiment with and to incorporate into their worlds of play.
- Invite Friends Over
When children are around other children, they naturally inspire each other. I see this all the time with my own daughters. When it is just my two girls at home, they tend to play mostly in the yard. Sometimes they play in mud puddles, but most of the time they play on the swings or ride bikes in the driveway. When they have friends over, they roam farther, venture into the woods, build dams in a nearby stream, and get creative with their play ideas.
I often hear from others that when they let their children outdoors, there is often very few other children around to play with. If your children live in a neighborhood, get to know your neighbors that have children the same age. Establish relationships with those around you to support a community that watches out for the children. If you don’t live near other children and if you’re tired of “play dates” that only last a few hours, consider having parents drop their children off at your house for the whole day. Having extra time with other children allows them to roam further with confidence and inspires them to play in different ways.
In the beginning, you may need to rely on some of these ideas to encourage independent outdoor play. It often takes lots of practice for children to simply start generating play ideas on their own. However, don’t give up. Fore, the more experience children get playing outdoors on their own and with other children, the more capable they will be playing in an outdoor environment. It really just takes time and space – the rest will come.
Good luck! Let me know how these tips work for you! And by the way, Sat., May 21, is our sixth annual Take Our Children to the Park…and Leave Them There Day. So get ready! – L.