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Meagan lives in St. Joseph, MI with her husband Jon and kids Clara, Owen, William, Isaac, and Jacob; who range in age from four to fifteen. Meagan celebrates the art of sane + satisfying family life at her blog The Happiest Home, and shares her ideas on being a happier mom in her book The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets To Enjoying Motherhood, both of which have been hailed as down-to-earth, funny, wise, and helpful.

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I don’t take my kids outside to play. I SEND them outside to play.

By Meagan Francis |

As I type this, there’s a gaggle of kids in the yard outside my office window, playing a  game that appears to involve running in circles until they all collapse. My eight-year-old son, his seven and four-year-old cousins, six-year-old brother – and yes, my three-year-old daughter – are red-cheeked and ruffled, rolling around on the sunny April grass.

And there’s not a grown-up in sight.

I’m keeping a slightly-more-watchful eye today than I usually would given the mix of little and big kids, but children playing alone outdoors is pretty par for the course around here. And sometimes I get the feeling that other parents think it’s a little…weird how often my kids are outside without an adult presence.

Here’s the thing: I put a high value on outdoors time for kids. I have many wonderful memories of roaming the neighborhood and just kicking around my back yard as a little girl, and believe outdoor play had a huge impact on my health and happiness as a child. I could go on and on about the studied benefits of outdoor play for body, mind, and spirit, but this National Wildlife article sums it up pretty well.

But I’m also a busy person, with a job that keeps me in front of a computer for big chunks of time each day. And when not working, there’s housework to attend to. While I do believe that it’s important for parents to spend time outside with their kids, an adult’s outdoors time is usually limited by jobs and other obligations. For me, “going outside” means a daily walk, an evening romp in the garden, a backyard BBQ, beach trips and camping trips.

And I just don’t feel like that’s enough for my kids. They need to be outside, for long periods of time, most days of the week: jumping, running, smelling the air, digging in the dirt, looking at bugs. And since I can’t be out there with them as much as I want them to be out there, well…I kick ‘em to the curb. Or the yard, as it were.

Over the past few years there has been a lot of research about kids and outdoor play, and the general consensus seems to be: they don’t get enough of it. Of course we’re all concerned, looking for answers and solutions and more studies…

But I think there’s a fairly simple solution here: Send Them Out.

We parents get in our own way when it comes to getting more fresh air in our children’s lungs and fresh dirt under their fingernails. We buy into the cultural message that the kids can’t go out and play unless we do something for them: drive them to the park, come up with a fun bird-watching activity (with a craft to match), or at the very least, go out and watch (and direct) their play.

And honestly, most days I just don’t have time for all that. So I send ‘em out on their own, to learn to make games out of nothing, to figure out the way the world works without the help of an activity tutorial.

Over the years I’ve heard arguments about why I shouldn’t let my kids play unattended. Abduction, accidents…yes, those are real risks, but they are small risks. Risks that, incidentally, cannot be eliminated by staying inside or even by providing consistent adult supervision.

To me the bigger risk would be relegating outdoor play to something that only happens when Mom or Dad have time to watch or energy to “create” an experience. The bigger risk is raising a generation children who don’t smell like the breeze at the end of a summer day; who don’t understand that a stick and a wormy pile of soil are all you need to pass an hour.

Yes, I’m fortunate that we live in a place where solo outdoor play is not only relatively safe, but also fairly well-accepted by neighbors and fellow parents. We made a conscious choice to look for this kind of town and this kind of neighborhood when we were ready to buy a home, but not everyone is as lucky.

Still, it’s telling to me that a recent study found that children living in public housing projects play outdoors more than other kids in those same cities. It’s possible that our neighborhoods are a whole lot safer than we have the courage to believe. It’s also possible that our biggest fear is not that something bad will happen to our kids, but that other parents will judge us. And to me, “what others might think” just isn’t a good enough reason to keep my children indoors.

One of my absolute favorite ways to pass a warm day is sitting on a deck, sipping a cool drink and watching my kids play. If only I had the luxury to do that all day, every day…but alas, I don’t. Fortunately, I can still afford my kids the luxury of a rich, full, whole outdoors life, of scooters and bikes, of worms and dirt, of singing birds and sunshine.

And all it takes is four words: “Go outside and play.”

Thanks for reading my post! You might also want to head over to my blog, The Happiest Mom, follow me on Twitter, or check out my Facebook page.

MORE ON BABBLE:

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12 things you need to know before hiking with your kids
10 simple mood boosters for kids
14 things I swore I’d never do as a parent
10 toddler types your kid will meet on the playground

More on Babble

About Meagan Francis

meaganfrancis

Meagan Francis

Meagan Francis is a mom of five who loves everyday adventures and is in pursuit of a big life with her big family. Her love of family, food, home and travel fuel her writing here and on her blogs The Happiest Home and The Kitchen Hour.
 
Read bio and latest posts → Read Meagan's latest posts →

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43 thoughts on “I don’t take my kids outside to play. I SEND them outside to play.

  1. Rhachelle Nicol' says:

    I absolutely love this post!!! I am a single mother and also very busy throughout the day. I also send my children out to play. As a child, I loved playing outside, making up games, exploring and not coming in until absolutely exhausted or it was getting dark. My children love it is as well.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This is awesome. I have little kids (3, 19 months, and newborn) and at our old house couldn’t just send my son out because we didn’t have a fence, he was little, and he was a little too curious. But we moved and we have a fenced yard and I love that I can send the two boys outside to play because I don’t always have time to run outside with them (though I would love to). At first I felt guilty because I have been told by flabberghasted people that this was something one should not do but then I realized something…they need outside time, I have work to do (often inside), we have dogs that are good warning signs of other people activity, the yard is fenced, they have fun, I check on them A LOT, my newborn can’t spend loads of time outside, and it is okay! We are moving soon but our yard is still fenced (just bigger) and it will be our own so we can set up some awesome outdoor fun. Thank you for this post!

  3. Ellen says:

    Love thus! My son is 2&1/2 and I’ve been trying to get him to be alone outside but so far he is against it. What age did your kids start and any advice?

  4. Pam says:

    2 & 1/2 is too young to be alone outside! Kids do need outside time, lots of it. But safety is most important. Just ask any parent who will never stop crying “If I had only…:”

  5. Meagan Francis says:

    @Pam, I disagree – it depends on the child and the situation. When my daughter was 2 1/2 I would often leave the door open so she could go in and out of our (fenced) yard. She’s not the sort of kid to try to outsmart fences and gates, and would always dig in a little patch of dirt a few steps from the door. I was in the front area of the house where I could easily see/hear her. I’m not sure how she was any less safe at that age than she would have been doing the same thing at 3 1/2, 4 1/2, 5 1/2…

    Now if I had a child who was an escape artist, or my yard wasn’t fenced, or I was in a different part of the house I probably would have felt differently. But it’s not something I think you can always generalize about.

  6. Meagan Francis says:

    I wasn’t very clear in my comment – of course I meant that I left the HOUSE door open so she could go between the house and yard, not that she could go in and out of the yard!

  7. maggiemoo says:

    Yes!!! What a great article! Children need to be outside, in the mud and dirt and sunshine, to really thrive!!! And by sending them out to play without an adult, they are learning so many lessons that will help them navigate the world as adults. I also never understood the need to come up with a myriad of activities for them to make their time outside fun and educational. Not that a planned nature walk or learning about the local bird species can’t be fun, but they seem to get soooo much more out of it under their own steam.

  8. Karen L says:

    Love it, Meagan.

    Now, on the other hand, we’re on the other side of the classic commute-vs-house trade-off right now. We live in a highrise in the core of the city. There are indoor an outdoor places to play, but they are structured playgrounds for the most part. No fields or creeks. There’s hardly a blade of grass to be found within 1 km and certainly not without crossing some serious traffic. My almost-5-y-o is just not up to the task of managing near traffic, despite my best efforts. He’s still too impulsive and oblivious. And, of course, my 2 y-o and 8 m-o aren’t even close.

    For us to be able to afford a yard, let alone a neighbourhood that would be conducive to solo bike-riding and “see ya when the street lights turn on”, (which is how I grew up and how I’d love to live) we’d need to move to a new city, or at LEAST 60 minutes from where we are now.

    On the other hand, I have a seven minute WALK to work and my husband’s walk or subway ride is about 15-20 minutes. I am utterly unwilling to take 2 hours of my day and also 2 hours of my husband’s day away from the family. I’m also utterly unwilling to move to a city away from our social and family network.

    In the meantime, I take them out to play and try to let them play as they’ll let me. And I console myself with the fact that we are living a very pedestrian lifestyle. We have a car but we hardly use it.

    And yes, we’re saving as much as we can (we’re good savers) to be able to afford a home in a neighbourhood with some yards in a few years, I hope. And you can bet your bottom dollar that I won’t be peer-pressured out of letting the kids get the best of the outdoors once we get there.

  9. Canuckmom says:

    I do have the time to take my kids outside, but I still send them out…

  10. Rebekah @ The Golden Gleam says:

    Hooray! Thank you for spreading the importance of free outdoor play! Kids need it. I love that you recognize that kids need hours at a time of play outdoors. So much more creative play happens when children are given the space and time in their own backyard.

    I started letting my daughter play in our fenced backyard at 4 yo. I leave the windows open so I can see and hear her. It makes no sense for her to have to come inside just because I need to come inside to cook dinner. Especially since we have a safe yard for her to play in.

    Of course, the situation depends on maturity and safety factors, but I think if you can’t let your child outside alone then you need to figure out ways to be outside with your child.

  11. Cerys @ Rainy Day Mum says:

    What a great article I think the going outside to play is so imporant my childhood was spent riding bikes around our neighbourhood. Even now we’ve created a garden that is safe for our children to enjoy whilst we are in the kitchen as it can be seen from all the windows – it has the possibility to expand as they grow as well.

  12. Alison says:

    You just summed up my thought process. So nice to hear another mother with the same views! Thank you!

  13. chelle says:

    My son is 29 months and I leave our back sliding door open all day and he comes in and out as he pleases. Our backyard is fenced and he has even made friends with one of our older gentleman neighbors, my son LOVES to watch him mow his yard. I check on him often, as I attend to house things and his baby sister. I join him some everyday but certainly I can’t be with him for the amounts of time that he wants/needs/enjoys being out. It works for us, my mom NEVER went outside with me…I roamed the neighborhood, riding bikes, making mud pies or leaf soup…I’m not comfortable with that level of freedom for him yet(?) but in our fenced in yard, where I can see him through 4 windows and a sliding glass door…I think the benefits out weight the risks.

  14. Laurie says:

    Love this! I remember being sent out to play with my twin sister and all the neighborhood kids when I was little. We had a blast and learned to be resourceful. We are in the process of putting a new fence in and I can’t wait to be able to have my 2 1/2 year old be able to be outside, yes closely monitored, on his own and not rely on us to entertain him.

  15. The Monko says:

    I totally agree that a 2.5 year old can be left alone outside if you have a fenced in garden (with a bolt on the gate!). My son has been playing alone in the garden since he was about 16 months old. He has a sand pit that he loves to spend hours in. We have patio doors that I slide open and I can sit inside and get on with my things while keeping an ear out for him. He is usually very happy to potter on his own but will come and find me if he wants company or needs help. I guess I’m lucky that we do have a very small garden so he isn’t going to disappear out of earshot.

  16. betty sweat says:

    So sad…cant spend don’t have children..sounds like an excuse to get away from the kids….my kids were out alot growing up,bit I was ALWAYS with them,not because I had to..i was their mom and with my kids were where i should and wanted to be

  17. shanna dahle says:

    My husband and I have this discussion all the time as we often as we drive through towns & notice how there’s NEVER any kids outside. I have a 2 & 4 year old and we make it a point to make it out everyday for at least an hour. It makes a difference in BOTH of our energy level, as well as everyones mood. I often wonder what families/daycares do when they DON’T go out. When I was a little girl my brother & I weren’t ALLOWED to play inside unless it was a rainy day and I’m thankful, because it gave us the opportunity to be creative in finding our own play & games :) I want that for my boys as well…

  18. Ara V. Sasil (@LisaAJK) says:

    AMEN. We live next door to my in-laws on one side, and good friends with a son the same age as my daughter on the other side. On nice days, there are significant periods of time when I have no idea where my children are, and I’m perfectly fine with that. (They are 7 and 5). They know to stay out of the street (though they admittedly are not perfect about this, but we live on a residential street and traffic isn’t too much of an issue.)

  19. Hayley says:

    When my oldest was in daycare (she is 3 now, spent the first 2 years in an in-home daycare – I taught school so my husband could go to law school), her sitter would routinly complain when the weather got too hot, because that meant the kids could not play outside. I loved it when she came home filthy dirty, because I know she had a great time playing. Even at our hold house, when I was pregnant with #2 or feeding him, I would open our back door (off the kitchen) and sit at the table (literally right by the door) and she would run and play and I could just sit and watch her. Just more reasons why we need to get a fence up in this yard!

    I remember playing outside when I was small and our family lived on the lake. We had an unfenced yard and I was frequently out by myself. We moved from there when I was 6, so that tells you how young I was by myself. By a body of water, no less!

  20. Tricia says:

    My oldest walks in the front door after school and leads the train of younger ones straight out the back dOor every day. I agree, and often forgo my duties indoor to watch the lIttle ones Play outside. Dishes and laundry will always be there. Nice weather isn’t always a guarantee here!

  21. Stephanie says:

    I’ve been talking about this with my family lately. We have a fenced in back yard (on a canal) and my older two are 4 (turning 5) and 3 and I know I played a lot outside without adult supervision growing up, and was trying to think at what age that was. I feel like people will judge me if my kid is playing outside without me there (I sit on the porch swing in the front and let them play whatever they want as long as they stay within the physical boundaries I set for them). We live in the suburbs, the neighborhood is nice, but I still feel like people would look at me as a bad mother if I send my almost 5 year old out to play without supervising. I do however, let them play in the backyard “alone” while I’m on the patio and can see/hear them. They do fine. Our kids need that time to be physically active and HAPPY. Otherwise I’m not happy.

    http://www.practicingparenting.net/

  22. Kelli Oliver George says:

    My son started going out in our backyard unattended when he was 2.5. He started going in the front unattended when he was 4. Now, he is 6 and his 4.5 yo sister regularly joins him out there. As my son gets older, his range is widening. At first, it was right in front of our house. Now, it is two houses either way.

    Have I been judged? You bet!

    I am more at risk from some nosy busybody calling CPS than I am from my child getting molested or abducted from our front yard. Sigh.

  23. Momoffour says:

    This winter and spring my kids have started going outside to play by themselves and I love it! We live in a very safe neighborhood and I keep an eye on them when thet are out through the windows and step out on the porch every so often but have really been encouraging them to do stuff on their own. I also have a nagging suspiscion though that our neighbors are uncomfortable with it, as they only let their little ones out with supervision. I think that really does limit their time outdoors tremendously and I feel bad for those kids cooped up inside on beautiful days. For the record, my littlest is 2 going on 3 this summer, and she often joins her brothers out there alone. I’m not worried at all that she will go out of the yard or anything, I only worry when her brothers get too dare- devil with their bikes or scooters that they get her to try crazy things too!

  24. Nil Zed says:

    I have a hard time getting my almost 5 year old to play in the backyard alone. His preferred outdoor play is riding things with wheels, which requires a front sidewalk which requires supervision. Even when his riding skills are better, the design and orientation of our house means I can’t see enough of ‘out front’ to feel OK about him being out there. Yet.

    At least now the weather is Warner is favorite backyard play is possible again. I give him a bucket of water and cheap paintbrush and he ‘paints’ the walls for ages. Just realized his sandbox needs a top up too.

  25. Anne says:

    It is amazing what my kids(ages 3 and 6) come up with to do when I’m not playing with them. Recently, they collected stones, flowers, and twigs and made an elaborate fairy playground. If I’m outside with them, they don’t get creative, they want to be entertained or taken somewhere (which is great sometimes, but not all the time).
    Of course, I tell myself I’ll get some housework done while they’re outside and then I end up watching them from the kitchen window because it is so much fun–Megan must be really disciplined!

  26. Craig Wiesner says:

    My earliest years were in a housing project in Rockaway New York. Mom sent me outside to play all the time and I have really fond memories of the playground and the weeds (a place across the street near the bay where one could always find something interesting someone else had discarded that could make for hours of play). We played “skully caps” and made up all sorts of games. And… there were always watchful eyes and listening ears from the apartments above. If you did something wrong… your mom knew about it fast.

    But, it was also a bit dangerous and the one thing I’d say my parents failed to do was give us important tips on protecting ourselves. Back then, perhaps, they didn’t know as much as we do now. For example, all children should know that if a man comes by and says “I lost my puppy. Will you help me find her?” The answer should be “Excuse me while I go get my mother!”

    One of our closest friends as adults went through a divorce and had to move herself and kids to a new neighborbood. In the old, wealthier, neighborhood, kids did not play outside at all. Play dates had to be arranged. In the new neighborhood, there were kids outside all the time. Her son and daughter blossomed in that neighborhood and years later are still close to many of the now-adults that they had known as children.

    That’s community at its best!

  27. [...] As a parent I want to ensure that my kid is safe. I don’t let her run around in the kitchen with the stove on, she doesn’t play with scissors and if I let those things happen I’d be a bad parent. You can be a bad parent by keeping kids too safe as well. [...]

  28. Kayt says:

    I live in an urban neighborhood, and we have been sending our three year old outside to play unsupervised since he was two and a half. We have a small but safe back yard that’s fenced with a locked gate. I can see him from the back door, but not from the kitchen, where I tend to be, cooking dinner or doing dishes while he’s out there. He would prefer to be let loose in the yard than be underfoot, and I appreciate that. He has a small play structure, a trike, and some dirt. He loves it! And I love having him playing independently.

  29. Kristin says:

    I started sending my kids out to play around 3 or 4 i think? The oldest ones are 6 and 7 now. I used to let them play in the front yard so they could ride their bikes and scooters on the pavement, but then one day they disappeared and had walked off and out of the neighborhood! I still let them play outside unsupervised, but only in our fenced in back yard. I’m still not ready to trust them to stay in the parameters I’ve set for them.

  30. Jills says:

    I’d say the biggest reason parents don’t do this is not because they are afraid they’ll be judged by other parents, but because they don’t have the nerve to “make” their kids do anything they don’t initially want to do. Kids usually have fun once they get out, but I’d say the majority, if given the choice, would be lazy and stay indoors watching TV or playing video games.

    I love the article. I want my kids to smell like the breeze too, but they usually smell like wet dog. That’s okay too, though! :)

  31. SusanP says:

    We bought our house on a huge 1 acre yard 12 years ago because at the time we had 3 big dogs and wanted them to have a place to run. It’s on the outskirts of our medium size city in a suburban like atmostphere. The yard is fenced in and padlocked – something we had to do when the cable guy left the fence open and the dogs escaped. Now we’re down to 1 dog and four kids who are 7, 6, 3, and almost 2 and we are so happy to have the big yard. They play outside daily – we can easily see them from the kitchen and family room windows. They play in the dirt, water, sand, stones, and with bugs, lizards, etc. We are also lucky to live in a warmer climate where they can be out there year round. I’d say it’s at about 18mo when I felt comfortable with the little ones being out there alone with the big ones – and we do check on them often if the little one is out there.
    We do have to be strict about the front yard though – they are not allowed out there unsupervised. Our street is the main pipeline into the neighborood and we’re just the 4th house in from the main busy street. People turn onto our street and go way too fast – by the time they are passing our house, some are going 45+! There have been 3 street side stone mailboxes taken out and 2 dogs hit (one fatally). It doesn’t help that there are no sidewalks either. We do have a real safety concern so in the back they stay.

  32. Kayt says:

    I forgot to say that in the summer, I send my son up to my parents’ home in rural Montana. They have five acres, and about half an acre worth of yard. They send him out to play all of the time. He loves to be out in the chicken coop, tossing the ball for the dogs, playing in the wood shed, running around in the pine needles, messing around with the hose, picking flowers, etc. Since he is only three, someone keeps half an eye on him, mostly through one of the picture windows. They’re so far out, they’re a quarter mile from the nearest public road, and they share their driveway with two other families. Those families watch out for him too, and we make sure to keep him away from the road, too. It’s a truly idyllic place for him.

  33. Hanni says:

    We live on five acres way north of the nearest town and have a huge fenced in yard. My five year old daughter has her digging machines out there and loves to go out to build roads and lay stick “pipes” under her roads. My office overlooks the yard, so I can open my window and hear her when she calls. Some days she’ll play out there for hours…

  34. Carrie says:

    I wish I had your attitude and felt comfortable enough to let them roam freely to play. My youngest is 7 and I still can’t bring myself to let them play outside without watching closely (the others are 8 and 10.) They play in our fenced in back yard without me — where I feel ok about them being — I can see through the window, there’s lots for them to do out there, and the nosy neighbors can’t see over the 6-foot-fence to know they are out there while I’m inside. One day my 8-year-old was walking down the street outside our house and I had a neighbor call me panicked wondering if I knew he was out there all alone. Ok, I could see the panic if it were a 1 or 2-year-old, but an 8-year-old? That’s a big reason I have a hard time with it. Interference and judgement from others.

  35. Carrie says:

    Oh, and let me clarify…my 8-year-old wasn’t walking “in” the street, but walking on a sidewalk on our street in front of the house.

  36. [...] "I don’t take my kids outside to play. I SEND them outside to play" where Meagan Francis talks about how kids can still play, outside, without structure. [...]

  37. Kelly says:

    Oh how I wish I could do this for my kids! But, at 5 and 3 (and 16 months, but he wouldn’t be part of the equation yet), and with an unfenced yard and neighbors with an unfenced pool (!!!), it’s just not an option. But I do let them run around and do their own thing when we do go outside.

  38. SajMom says:

    When my oldest child was young I was paranoid about letting her out in the backyard alone, or even with an older friend. Then I had more kids and realized if I didn’t let them out without me they wouldn’t spend much time outside. I also feel like there is safety in numbers-I have five kids so when they’re out there are more of them to notice if someone approaches them or if someone would try to wander off. But it’s still tough for me mentally now because although I’m ok with it, the neighbor below us (we’re at the top of a hill) never lets his kids out without him or his wife (not even the middle-schooler). I feel like the neighbors all think I don’t care about the kids’ safety and probably talk about it. I believe it’s benign neglect, and their childhoods are so much better because of it. My 3 boys sit and dig in the dirt all afternoon! They find worms and salamanders, they build tunnels and dig for pottery. Their faces are constantly smeared with dirt, and I clean a lot of mud out of the kitchen as a result. They all play games and draw with chalk and soak up the sunshine. (But I still worry about what other people think!)

  39. Magen says:

    YES!!! I’ve been thinking a lot about this as the weather starts to warm up. We live in student family apartments right now and so yes, I have to go out with the toddler because I don’t want her to get ran over. But I do try to sit at the other side of the yard or garden while she runs around with her older sister or little friends. I see other parents giving me the eye because I’m not hovering, but I want them to explore! Make friends on their own and problem solve.

    I can’t wait till he graduates law school and we can buy a house somewhere with a great big yard. I’m just going to send them out and secretly spy on them…not because I’m worried about something happening to them but because I love the complete look of joy and freedom on their little faces :)

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