On long plane and car trips, to keep the peace I downloaded “educational” preschool apps for her to play with. Then at home, sometimes she would find my tablet lying on the table while I was busy cooking or on the phone, and amuse herself with her favorite games. Between extended family stress, community commitments, and adding working part-time from home into the mix, I was distracted. It wasn’t always easy for my sibling-less child to amuse herself solo. One day, on a nostalgic whim, I showed her a Sesame Street episode from my childhood on the laptop. Once she understood that by touching a few buttons, I could summon magical entertainment onto a screen, she began asking for “movies” every day. I didn’t want it to become a habit, but it was always tempting: a movie meant an hour to myself to get things done. I drew some lines — we never turned on the movie before 4pm — but soon it was happening every day, and she would beg for her movies starting first thing in the morning.
The intensity of her desire for the screen scared me, as did her foot-dragging reluctance to come for a walk to the playground or even run around in the yard. I needed to get back on track with my parenting priorities, and ask myself some tough questions. Was I holding her back with overprotective fears? When my daughter’s playing her spelling game on the iPad beside me, at least I know she’s safe. Stepping out the front door, she’s vulnerable to a host of unknowns. She could fall off a high rocky bluff and break a bone, get fecal-borne cryptosporidium from the local flock of sheep, find a rusty nail from a recent construction project. When I hear myself and other parents say “she’s just an inside kind of kid,” I have to wonder — am I unconsciously training her to love indoor play to protect her from imagined harm?
Research confirms the health benefits of time spent in “green environments”, especially in unstructured free play. Romping outside lowers stress, reduces obesity, and can even improve ADHD symptoms. What draws kids outside? How can trees, dirt, and rocks compete with the lure of the screen?
Create a safe and fertile space
Playing outside is stressful for all if the adult needs to hover around with a constant stream of “no’s”. For small children, this might mean putting up a sturdy fence so that spatial boundaries are clear, and ensuring the yard is free of objects they shouldn’t touch, taste, or damage. If there are “special” flowers that shouldn’t be tromped on, make sure these are understood in advance. Don’t worry about special equipment or toys — though it may take some adjustment, pinecones, sticks, and bugs can provide plenty of fuel for the imagination. Don’t react to complaints of boredom, and be patient if a child appears to do nothing for a while. Parenting writer Janet Lansbury believes “Often the richest, most productive play doesn’t look like much because it’s dawdling, imagining, daydreaming, big picture thinking.” Our children need to build confidence in their own ability to entertain themselves.
Observe your child’s common sense and developmental readiness for independence, and adjust their boundaries accordingly. If you live in the city and have no yard of your own, take advantage of local parks and playgrounds. Spend an hour exercising, crafting, doing paperwork or reading while your kids explore, making regular park visits rewarding for everyone.
Initiate a family game of mysterious surprises, in which a familiar toy is occasionally discovered “living” in a nearby bush or hollow log. Construct fairy houses together and make up stories about possible inhabitants. Trim an inviting opening in a big tangly hedge or bush. Clear out just enough undergrowth to create tunnels or rooms. Instant outdoor playhouse: just add children! Kids love to wriggle in and out of enclosed spaces — caves, shelters, “forts” — improvised out of thin air. Old blankets and deck furniture can provide hours of fantasy. Costume materials are great additions.
Pursue your own love of nature
I’ve had to confront myself on practicing what I preach: it didn’t work when I denied my child computer time while sneaking moments online myself while she played. Now I try to get all my digital-world tasks accomplished while she’s at preschool or asleep — after all, vigorous outdoor adults are happier and healthier too. New research documents what most of us could guess: active moms tend to have active kids (that particular study didn’t look at the role of dads). They do as we do, not as we say. If you are excited about gardening, hiking, bird-watching, or outdoor projects like wood-working or basket-making, your enthusiasm will draw them out to engage in “parallel play” — kids will often create their own version of the adult’s activity nearby. This year my daughter, without any prompting, constructed her own “garden” by spreading some sand, fencing it with sticks and rocks “to keep the deer out” and finding her own seeds from wild and domestic plants. She enjoys the ritual of watering it daily, with a kid-sized watering can she dips in a bucket of water.
“Dirt mounds make great babysitters”
Of all the millions of available toys, the old sandbox never goes out of style. You can make your own sandbox from scratch, purchase a fool-proof kit, or improvise with whatever’s on hand, such as an old plastic kiddie-pool — keep it out of the landfill! Any diggable loose dirt will work. Add a couple old spoons or trowels and some empty yogurt cartons for making castles, and away you go. A large container of water they can access with dippers completes the messy fun!
Let them make their own world
The children’s picture book Roxaboxen tells of a group of neighborhood kids who come together as often as they can to live in their own “town”, made mostly of found rocks and old boxes. Each child has a chosen role in their town, and together they find fuel for years of imaginative play. Not every child is lucky enough to have a neighborhood gang, or a handy vacant field to make their own permanent settlement. But sometimes we can make space for this to happen for an afternoon… in a quiet corner of the park while adults chat, read, or do yoga, or behind the woodshed when friends come to visit.
It took me years to understand that sturdy rubber boots go with everything. Outdoor play is not just for sunny summer days! Kids have amazing radar for adults’ feelings, and they may be inhibited in their exploration and joy if they’re picking up on our anxiety about cleanliness. Try to see their wet and filthy shoes and pants as a sign of success. Save the clean white garments for special occasions, and send them out in non-precious old play-clothes. On outings, pack some extra clothes and plastic bags so everyone can relax and splash in the puddles to their heart’s content. If you have a kid who loves fancy clothes, let her wear some — thrift stores are full of dreamy fluffy dresses and other costume-y frills for a couple of dollars. Once dry, most mud can be easily shaken off. We keep a shallow pan of water and a brush outside our front door for cleaning mud-caked boots. When in doubt, don’t interrupt focused play — trust that if they are cold, hot, thirsty or hungry they will let you know.
Give them a job
Children need to feel they have a role of value, and are contributing to the family. Approached in the right spirit, most kids will welcome (or even ask for) outdoor tasks that have a tangible result. Raking leaves, making a landscape border with small rocks, or planting and watering are tasks where all ages can help. Using real grown-up hand tools (with supervision) is exciting and builds important skills. Having their own garden provides ongoing satisfaction. Give each child a clearly marked bed in the family garden; for city dwellers find a place on the stoop, roof, or balcony for a container garden. Offer enough non-intrusive guidance to ensure they get some edible results for their work!
Make it social
When other kids come over, play reaches a new level of focused seriousness. Whenever I can, I offer another parent a free afternoon while I borrow their child to play at our house. I stay nearby, but try to give them enough space to feel unselfconscious within their private story. I pay attention when I hear voices raised in anger or distress, but minor disagreements are often resolved if no adult jumps in. Sometimes joining a group — such as a local Camp Fire or Girl Scout troop — is the answer for a family that gets stuck in an activity rut and needs new ideas.
Some writers are drawing connections between the current American health crisis — a bewildering landslide of depression, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease — and a culture-wide diagnosis of “nature deficit disorder”. Child advocacy expert Richard Louv coined that term in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, where he expressed alarm over the shrinking range of the modern child, which cultural parenting trends emphasizing safety and supervision have reduced to one ninth of the territory children could explore on their own in 1970.
The backlash to our overprotective era is well underway: we’re now familiar with the perils of “helicopter parenting”, and many of us have pondered whether we’re ready to join the “Free-range Kids” movement. In the UK, “adventure playgrounds” resembling junkyards defiantly feature loose wooden pallets for building, a pile of old tires, a natural brook, and pits where kids can play with real fire. Children need to confront fears and take real risks, say critics of the current culture of “safety first” — they argue that modern playgrounds are so danger-free that kids are uninterested in them. Where is the line between healthy risk-taking and irresponsible parenting? No parenting blog can make that choice for you.
One day, I told my daughter that this was the last time she was going to watch her daily movie, and tomorrow we would do something else. There were protests and tears for a few days — changing a routine is always hard. But after a couple of weeks the transition was over, and I felt as if a cord had been cut. What a perfect moment for spring to lengthen our days and wake up the earth! My daughter has her own four-year-old fears: if she sees a wasp, memories of a sting can drive her screaming inside. I can’t tell her it won’t happen again. But I can stay calm and curious, teach her to identify the wild huckleberries as well as the poisonous amanitas and foxglove that grow on the edges of our yard, and let her hold the wriggling earthworm my trowel disturbs in the garden. Then I return to pulling weeds, and manage to resist zipping up her sweater for the third time.