The weather has turned blissfully autumn around South Georgia recently. Perfect for spending time outside without instantly sweating. Equally perfect for kids (and adults) to play outside. While my children do play outside during the dreadful heat of summer (which lasts far too long here if you ask me), in this autumn weather I am more enthusiastic in my encouragement of outside play, as well as more likely to join in walks, bike rides, and other outdoor fun. It just feels good to be out there in the cool weather sunshine with its crunchy leaves and butterflies.
And outside play is great for kids. It is natural and healthy, even important, for children to spend time outside, connecting with nature and exploring their world. Research shows that we humans have a need for this type of connection. That it is good for us. That we suffer for a lack of it.
So rather than stressing grades quite so much, we might do some good by sending the kiddos out to play more. For there is some important learning to be done outside, independently, as well. It is good for the kids and good for the environment, as people who develop a connection with nature are more likely to take action to care for it. And it is just plain fun to play outside.
Outside, kids really tap into their creativity and imagination. They make tools out of sticks and clubhouses from clusters of trees. They develop storylines and characters for their games, maybe good guys and bad guys or imaginary creatures. The sky is the limit so they can imagine big.
With all the talk of childhood obesity these days, playing outside is a great alternative to sitting in front of a screen. Kids exercise without even thinking about it as they chase each other, fly a kite, climb in that clubhouse tree cluster, or ride their bikes.
Perhaps children today are more sedentary not so much because they don’t want to exercise (as we adults may sometimes think of it as another chore), but rather because they are not often placed into the opportunity to exercise naturally. We let them sit and watch while the world outside beckons for them to explore and run and jump. They might just need some encouragement in the right direction if they are not used to playing outside much.
We might be tempted to think it would be better for our children to practice more with those flash cards than to play outside. While that sounds good (to adults anyway) and while there is a time and a place for flash cards, consider this article, by Richard Louv of the Children & Nature Network, based on studies that show the connection between getting out into nature, and the world, and learning science. Apparently a lot of science learning takes place outside the walls of a classroom, so it is not enough to rely on teachers alone to teach science to our kids. If you really want them to excel, send them outside or take them hiking. Maybe bring a field guide and binoculars.
The scientific method, at its core, starts with curiosity, a wanting to know. When kids are outdoors, interacting with the plants and creatures and landscape, their curiosity has a chance to lead them into new discoveries and even basic research. I don’t know how many caterpillars our family has looked up online because we found them in our yard, and the kids wanted to know what they eat and what they will become.
Playing in the great outdoors also gives children the chance to develop their problem solving skills, which are essential to their life success. Spurred on by their curiosity, creativity, and imagination, kids are bound to run into some problems out there. As they learn how to solve these problems, they learn about themselves and their abilities, develop a healthy self-confidence, and become better equipped to handle larger life problems in the future. They cultivate a healthy sense of risk-taking as we allow them to take reasonable risks, which also contributes to their self-confidence for taking on bigger challenges.
In this age of helicopter parents and preplanned activities, children don’t need to be coddled or sheltered by well-intentioned adults as much as they need room to grow. When we send them outside to play or take them to natural areas, like state parks or the beach, we give their natural curiosity and imagination room to expand, their bodies room to stretch and romp, their minds room to wonder and learn and solve problems that matter to them.
So many benefits from something as simple as playing outside and interacting with the natural world. So get them out there. Tell your kids to take a hike. Or go fly a kite. Or whatever. And sometimes you can go, too, just for the fun of it.