Teach Your Kids How to Play Outdoors

Play Outside: Train your kids to play outdoors.

It’s a scary world out there. It’s scary because we aren’t letting our kids, as a general rule, play, explore, and discover that outdoor world. And to me, the lack of kids roaming out there is scary. (Crime rates are down since we were kids, so the world is actually less scary if we look outside our heads and at the stats.)

Crime rates are down, so why aren’t we letting our kids roam the neighbourhood?

Because we are scared.

Why aren’t our kids playing outside even when we encourage it?

Because they don’t know how. (Or because there is nobody else out there to play with–that breaks my heart. Let the kids out to play!)

We need to train our kids HOW to play outdoors.

If we’ve kept our kids indoors for the first few years of their lives (51% of preschool-aged children are taken outdoors to play on a daily basis) and suddenly decide to boot them outside to go play all day, it isn’t going to work.

Why not?

Because we haven’t trained them to play outdoors. We haven’t trained them that being outdoors is good, normal, fun, and something that should be done with regularity.

Think of it this way. Say a person has never read a book. They’ve seen a book and have been told it is good, but they don’t know how to read. They haven’t personally experienced the joy of a good book. We aren’t going to plop them down with a book one day and expect them to learn how to read on their own, get into it, and read the afternoon away are we? Nope, we are going to slowly build a reader by exposing them to it over and over again, make it fun, and increase the amount of time with each exposure. It’s the same with playing outdoors. We have to build up to hours of independent play.

Let me tell you a story…

In our neighbourhood there is a playground. There is also a playground about a kilometre to the south-west and another to the south-east. The playground next door is always teeming with kids. The other two playgrounds? Whenever we go to them we are the only ones there. Why is that?

Here’s how it may have happened…

We’ve live right next door to the teeming playground, but it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, whenever our daughter would come in saying there was nobody to play with in the park we’d said, “Go find someone.”

And she did. Repeatedly. She’d go to all the girls in the neighbourhood (luckily quite a few) and knock on their door. “Do you want to play in the park?” No luck? On to the next house. She’d keep going until she found someone. (And if we sent her farther than a few blocks, we’d send her with a walkie-talkie.)

And when our daughter sees others playing in the park, she runs out and joins them. (And since they have someone to play with, they play out there for longer.) Over time, the kids have created a community of ‘knock on my door and I’ll come play outside with you.’ As a result, the playground is always teeming with kids.

Last night, an unusually warm evening (also a school night, I should note), the playground had kids from at least half a dozen families playing out there until the streetlights came on.

We can do this. We can make our kids outdoor play people. On Thursday I’m going to share an infographic that shows the value and benefits of children playing outdoors. Stay tuned, you won’t want to miss it.

In the meantime here are some things you can do to help get your kids playing outside. You might just find yourself in the midst of a neighbourhood hub of play!

How To Get Your Kids to Play Outdoors

  • Regular access. Boot them out regularly. Try for 3 times a week. If they come in after 5 minutes, no big deal. Frequent, short outdoor play times will probably be more successful in the beginning.
  • Prime their play reservoir with outdoor play ideas. Ideas may include an outdoor scavenger hunt, building a fairy house, digging up potatoes, walking to get the mail, walking the dog, going to the store to buy milk, seeing how fast they can ride their bike around the block, or building a fort (in the hedge, etc.–it doesn’t have to be fancy).
  • Tell them stories and teach them the games and things you used to play outside. Ideas: Grounders, HORSE, Hopscotch, Capture the Flag, variations of Tag, making cat eyes with their shadow, and other great outdoor play ideas.
  • Slowly extend their boundaries. This makes it interesting for them and may motivate them to go outside more.
  • Make it a family activity. Go out as a family and point out interesting things in a conversational way. Walk, play, explore. Show them it’s okay to be curious.
  • Meet up with an outdoor play partner. Got an outdoorsy kid in your neighbourhood? Invite them over. See if it wears off or inspires your child to play outdoors more.
  • Proper clothing. Kids who are going to play outdoors in the winter, for example, need snowpants and good boots so they are comfortable and warm. The year I bought my 3-year-old crappy boots was the year when she never seemed to want to play out in the snow. Coincidence? Nope. I learned my lesson.
  • Outdoor Toys. If your kids aren’t quite at the point where they snatch the berries off the hedge to draw on the sidewalk, consider buying or making your own sidewalk chalk. As well, things like a soccer ball, bubble wands, and other simple outdoor play items might help get them outside those initial few times. (Evil plan: Make the new toys only outdoor play toys.)
  • Make it easy. A bin of outdoor toys at the front door. An open invitation to play in the yard, and other ways to make it ‘easy’ for your kids to choose to play outside. Something to try: leave the door to the backyard wide open on a nice day.
  • Make them an offer they can’t refuse. If you play outside for half an hour you can… (fill in the blank) OR Do you want to clean your room or play outside?
  • Make it electrical. If your kids feel lost without electronics, send them outside with it whether it is a camera, iPod, or video game. Sit them under a tree. Whether they realize it or not, they are sucking in some of the benefits of being outdoors and in nature. Over time you may find that they set aside the electronics and just sit and enjoy. Or play.

And that’s what it’s all about… enjoying the outdoors. Create some good habits and see you out there!

Share your outdoor play experiences in the comment section below. I’d love to hear about them.

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