"Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors."
—American Medical Association, 2005
Were you told to "go out and play" when you were a child? Now, as a parent, do you give your children the same instructions? Perhaps not, but even for the urban, over-scheduled family, there are ways to give our children more opportunities to explore the outdoors.
For centuries it was common wisdom that children needed several hours of outdoor activity daily. As Dr. Benjamin Spock said, "It's good for a baby (like anyone else) to get outdoors for two or three hours a day." Some say we now suffer from "nature deficit disorder." Children spend more and more time indoors with bright toys, beeping computer games, and flashing screens. A more contemporary pediatrician, Harvey Karp, similarly tells us that "there are exhaustive studies showing that time outdoors, particularly in nature, benefit us in myriad ways... while staying inside is over-stimulating and at the same time boring for children."
If we adults have lost touch with the wonders of our world and universe, we might look to our children to point the way again. Maria Montessori encouraged parents to follow the young child rather than carry him - watching his joy as he discovers pebbles, puddles, and small creatures; and goes up and down little hills, climbs rocks, or rolls in the grass.
A park is a wonderful place. Perhaps one is nearby so you can walk there with your children. Once there, relax and let your children lead the way. Together, you can lie on the soft grass and look up at the sky. The young explorers may climb trees, turn over rocks, jump in puddles, or find creepy-crawlies. Playgrounds are fine, but natural woods, grassy knolls, and paths provide even more interesting adventures.
Notice how an infant, especially a fussy one, changes as you carry her from the inside to the outside. There is a new calmness in you, too, as you feel the soft breeze on your face, see the sky, and listen. Whether night or day, the light outside is unique. Breathe the air, talk quietly with your child, and enjoy.
Our national and state parks offer diverse natural settings. You can walk in an echoing canyon or hike to a waterfall. No high-definition screen can capture the sense of space, the mist in the air, or the wonder of the colors and sounds. Every child delights in seeing a chipmunk scampering among the leaves or watching a woodpecker up in a tree.
Even with only a postage-stamp-size yard or small deck, there is space for nature. Certain plants attract butterflies or hummingbirds. A bird feeder brings the birds close enough to identify. Flowers or herbs in pots or window boxes can be planted and nurtured by your children. Children can play with water and dig sand in a plastic dish pan or tub. A potted tree or shrub can provide shade on a sunny day. Add a child-size chair and table, and you have an outdoor playroom.
Create different kinds of outdoor living areas if you have more space. Plant a garden and include water, whether a little pond, bird bath, or drip fountain. Is there a good tree to climb with pine needles or wood chips underneath? Make a hiding place among the shrubs or under the deck. Have the child-size gardening tools nearby for "digging to China" as well as tending the garden.
Make a place for you and your child outside. Is there room for a chaise or a picnic table? Can your children have one corner of the yard for their own fort, tunnel, or mud puddles? Get the right clothes for the weather, so it's fun in the rain, snow, or heat. Getting dirty is expected, and a wonderful response is: "Wow, it looks like you really enjoyed yourself out there."
Tell your child to "go outside and play." With the almost-constant supervision of our children today, they have little time to discover themselves or the world. Children need time on their own to think their own thoughts, explore, and move with abandon.
Parents may worry about keeping their children safe. Of course, supervision depends on your child's age, but most children over two and a half can be taught how to safely explore the outdoors if the yard is prepared with care. Children fall from trees and swings, and they learn how to pick themselves up and move on.
In the midst of your busy day, take an extra minute to experience the outside as you walk from the parking lot into the market. Make a ritual of walking up the street with your children or stepping outside with them for a few minutes just before bedtime. Take a deep breath, look at the trees, and see the sky. Just go outside!
"Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.
—Originally Published 2015