When I was a young girl, the majority of free time after school and in the summer was time spent outdoors. Kick ball, dodge ball, crack the whip, tag football, shooting hoops, making mud pies, exploring the creek for tadpoles and frogs, digging to the center of the earth, swimming, tennis, scavenger hunts, swaying on the tire swing, talks in the tree house, and walks to the nearby Woolworth’s to buy a coke and French fries were all activities I participated in with the kids who lived in my neighborhood. I remember leaving the house at 10 am and not coming back home until 9 pm, and the sound of my mother’s voice yelling, “Carol, it’s time to come home!” Wow, those were good days. Then I grew up and became a mother and the obsessive worry about the safety of my daughter caused me to rarely let her play outdoors unless I or another responsible adult was right there with her to supervise. How times have changed, but children innately have not changed!
The pleasures of the outdoors are among the deepest and most memorable events of childhood. Unfortunately, however, because of the increasing demands on parents working outside of the home and the growing concern for children’s safety, more and more children spend time behind locked doors watching television and playing video and computer games. Some other children have a schedule so full of structured activities such as music lessons, dance, drama, karate, and sports activities, that they do not get to enjoy the pleasure of free, imaginative, and unstructured play time outdoors. Compounding the dilemma, many elementary schools have eliminated recess, which for some children is the only time during the week they are able to have carefree play.
It is widely believed that unstructured physical play is a developmentally appropriate outlet for children to reduce stress and restlessness and to increase their attentiveness. In fact, children learn best through free play and discovery as it involves the whole child: gross motor, fine motor, senses, emotion, intellect, and social interaction! Outdoor play also helps prevent obesity in children, which is currently reaching epidemic proportions in the United States! Having unstructured play time outdoors provides children the opportunity to be creative, use their imaginations, and learn to play cooperatively with others.
So, what can we do as parents to make sure our children have outdoor play time? A few suggestions follow:
1) Get with other responsible parents and take turns supervising the children’s outdoor activities so you can know your child is safe and the outdoor time consists of quality activities.
2) Create a backyard play area that consists of soil, sand, water, long grasses, trees, flowers, bushes, animals, pond creatures, places to sit in, on, or under, places that provide shelter and shade, different levels of nooks and crannies, and places that offer privacy and views. Plants appeal to all of the senses, and when combined with a mix of sun, shade, color, texture, fragrance, and softness, they encourage a sense of peacefulness. Natural areas allow for investigation and discovery by children with different learning styles. Some people refer to an environment like this as a discovery play garden.
3) Buy or build toys, games, or other activities which are conducive to outdoor play, such as a kite, Frisbee, football, jump rope, kickball, bug house, bird house, spider web trellis, water games, tree house, in lieu of computer software or the latest video or technical gadget.
4) If your elementary school has eliminated recess, talk to other parents and, as a group, appeal to your school’s decision maker to reinstate it.
Let’s make changes and provide to our children more free time outdoors to play. The benefits to the child will be well worth it, not to mention the memories created and sense of safety and belonging to the world God created that they will experience!