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.”