Your Kids Need to Play Outside Without You

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Today I want to talk about outdoor play. Specifically unsupervised outdoor play. I know this topic is often touchy because a lot of us don’t have lifestyles that are set up for unsupervised outdoor play- but hopefully, I can give you some fuel to want to find a way to make it happen for your kids on a regular basis and some ideas on how you might do that. 

So first of all- why? Why is this something we would want to do? Outside is dangerous, right? The ground is uneven and there are hazards like sharp sticks and rocks and bugs and it’s dirty and wet. I get it. I am not an outdoors girl anymore. But I was as a child. And it turns out all that time I spent in the woods playing lost girls with my friends and biking around town and running around in the yard was the time that was really well spent. Because the research shows that time outside is basically occupational therapy for children. It activates their vestibular system. That’s what helps us understand where our body is in space. We’re seeing more and more children with vestibular issues. And it’s because kids aren’t spinning, and hanging upside down, and running after each other as much as we used to and our parents used to. And when they are doing it, they generally don’t do it outside. What’s so important about outside? Well, the ground is uneven. That requires us to use a lot more senses to stay upright. It challenges us more. There are more sensory cues outside- inside, the air is very stagnant and there aren’t very many environmental sounds and the light is artificial. But outside the position of the sun tells us where our bodies are in space using not only our shadows but if we’re facing towards it or away from it. Its position in the sky changes throughout the day so it helps our circadian rhythm develop. The wind also tells us where our bodies are in space. It stimulates our skin. Objects running around can block it- which helps us figure out where objects are. The trees filter the light- it creates a very rich but non-stressful backdrop for us. There’s sounds of birds and trees rustling and squirrels nattering and all those small but significant sounds help us orient ourselves. Outside provides a perfectly balanced sensory experience- it’s not too stressful, but it’s not devoid of stress either. It allows us to be calm, but alert. Which is basically what every single parent I’ve ever spoken to- wants for their child. For them to be calm but alert. Nature is calming, it’s restorative. In fact, there was a study done that found that even just looking at a picture of nature is calming. Or looking at it through a window. Outside is by design- multipurpose. It allows children’s imaginations to run wild. Inside everything has a purpose and there are expectations for conduct and preconceived notions of how children will use the equipment and space. Inside we have to use our indoor voices because it’s inside so it echoes and it can get really overwhelmingly loud. The equipment is generally single-purpose- even in a gross motor space like a gym or an indoor playground. There’s always a big list of rules posted. Jump on this. Hang from that. Go down the slide, not up to it. Outside there are no rules! A stick can be anything. Even a play structure isn’t expected to be used in one way outside. There’s no pressure and no expectations. Inside is also predictable. You get what you see- something may occasionally break or glitch but there’s very little surprise when it comes to inside. Outside is unpredictable though- that tree branch isn’t a strong as it looked. Oh, look there’s a deer over there! What was that sound? Look a blue jay! There are variables that can’t be considered and accounted for and that helps give children practice adapting. Which helps with flexible thinking which is an executive skill. 
And that’s really what it comes down to- outside naturally, but design improves children’s executive functioning. Just spending time outside playing. And it promotes the kind of play that actually builds the frontal lobe- that’s imaginative, that requires problem-solving and mediation. It makes children smarter. Playing outside makes children smarter. Period. 
But our kids are getting less time to do it than any generation previous. Because we’re busy! And we’ve been fed this strange line that outside is bad and dangerous and we need to constantly be 1:1 engaged with our children or else they’ll be stupid. No! If they don’t play outside they’ll be stupid. That’s the truth- that’s science. And we’re already seeing it! Every teacher I’d ever spoken to says there are escalating behaviour issues. There are children who can’t sit in a circle for 5 minutes, and they can’t remember basic information. It’s taking them more time and more repetition to remember things. They can’t sustain attention long enough to retain it. Our kids are already showing the effects of this! And it’s up to us- their parents- to make it a priority. 
So last time we talked about the PING GPS and that’s one way that I found has really helped me- as a millennial parent that is used to being connected to everything- feel more confident in letting my 5 years old go out to play unsupervised. It gives me a connection to him if I need it, and he feels secure knowing he has a connection to me. But that’s just really the connection part- allowing your child to play outside unsupervised does take some front-loaded effort on your part- you can’t just take a kid who has never been given that freedom and chuck them outside and hope they’ll figure it out. That is dangerous. So go with them at first. Show them their boundaries- when my oldest was first learning to play outside solo our back yard was almost fully fenced- but you could walk around our shed beside the garage and there was no gate there- it leads straight out to the alleyway. And we had no intention of putting up gate there. So I went to the hardware store and I got a can of that neon orange spray paint they use to mark where gas lines and telephones are… and I sprayed a line where there a gate would have been and I said- you don’t cross the orange line without Mama or Daddy. I made the boundary very visible. I still do this in our front yard- my little one is two and we show him- you can’t go past the ditch. And spray a line in the bottom of the ditch so he knows that’s his limit. When I take them to a new park I walk the perimeter with them and I show them- this is where you can run, and this is out of bounds. And we often repeat: “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” We also use a call and answer- which is really fun to practice. Ours goes “Logan where are you?” and the answer is “HERE!” So we started in our yard- when I couldn’t see him I’d yell it out, and then we generalized to the front yard, then the park. Let them go with friends! Have kids over and let them play outside without you together! Adding playmates to the mix opens up so many playscape possibilities. And give them clear expectations. Run through what to do if someone gets hurt. Run through what to do if they feel sick. Do practice runs. 
And then- this is the important part- TRUST THEM. Extend the trust to them that they can handle it. Are they going to mess up? Almost certainly, but if you never give them a chance- you’ll never know. 
Now if you don’t have a back yard this gets a bit trickier- but you can still give your kids this exposure- it just takes more active effort on your part. Allow them to play on your balcony if you’re in an apartment. It’s not as natural space- but they still get some of the input. Some are better than none. If they’re older, allow them to go down and play on the grass on the grounds- give them their Ping, establish boundaries of where they can and cannot play- so like- you can only play on this side of the building because I can see you from the balcony. Take them to large, natural parks, and sit your butt down and read a book and let them play and roam without following two steps behind them. Make it point to get out of the city and camp or spend some time at a cabin or cottage so they have the chance to spend time in nature unhurried. Make some friends who live more remotely and make a point of visiting them. We are those friends for a lot of people- they come out and visit for a week and my boys love having new playmates and I enjoy having another Mom friend to share the load and drink wine with. Some are better than none. 
All of this is to say- being outside is important. Playing solo is important. And since we’re living in a society that hasn’t taught us how to give our children that freedom- we need to prioritize it. And believe me- it’s amazing when they get the hang of it. I love sending my kids outside. I can clean, I can cook, I can work. And they get the brain-building play they need. Whenever their friends come over I tell them- bring their snowsuit, bring their sunscreen, bring their swimsuit. Cause they are going outside for at least an hour, preferably closer to 2-3 hours. It is so awesome to be able to trust my kids to do that. And it’s GOOD FOR THEM. And I guarantee you’ll start seeing more regulated, less behavioural kids when you start backing off and giving them some space to play without your nose in it. 

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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