For a variety of reasons, things I used to take for granted as a kid have slipped away for the little ones of today. The simple act of riding a bike outside has been replaced by motorized scooters and child-size cars. Taking a picnic has been replaced by trips to a local fast food restaurant. The thought of splashing in rain puddles or playing in the mud are experiences most preschoolers have never had.
While some of the reasons children are not allowed to engage in natural play are of legitimate concern, many are due to shifts in societal norms. We think children will enjoy a motorized car and forget about the physical activity we are taking away from them. We know children love chicken nuggets and French fries, but haven’t allowed them to experience what it is like to eat a sandwich while sitting in the grass and watching ants attack their apple. We are fearful children will get dirty and don’t allow them the pleasure of feeling dirt under their fingernails.
As summer draws near and the weather warms, consider the following tips for allowing children more time outside:
1. Take time to personally reflect
Taking children outside can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Challenge yourself to see how you can help children connect to nature again and feel firsthand what it is like to be in the outdoor elements. Next time it rains, go jump in a puddle. Participate in National Mud Day (September 30, 2019) and really let kids play in the mud. Take a picnic. Go pick dandelions. Think of something you did as a kid outside and give children the privilege of experiencing that wonder.
A lack of outdoor storage can make it difficult to have easy access to toys and materials for outdoor use. Purchase a weatherproof outdoor storage cabinet. This will allow for easy storage of toys and materials used exclusively outside. Find some old baby dolls and play food. Get some older books and outdoor cushions. Find some recycled plastic containers and purchase a few shovels. The addition of these simple items in your outside space can enhance play dramatically. Outdoor storage makes it easy to have easy access to such materials.
3. Communication with families
Have a conversation with families about what they are comfortable with for outdoor play. If families do not like their children playing in sand, dirt, or water, talk to them about what might be a good first step to allowing children the amazement of sensory play outside. If there is a fear about outdoor elements, unpack those fears and see if a compromise can be made.
4. Exposure to real natural elements
Many programs have fenced in space that separates children from all of the natural elements. Children may be outside, but they are not in nature. Look at your outdoor space. Do children really get to play in natural elements or have trees, grass, plants, etc. been fenced away from them?
5. Essential comfort elements
Is there a quiet place for children in your outdoor space? Consider ways your outdoor space might allow for some nooks and crannies where children can read, draw, or play with one or two friends. Is there plenty of shade and access to drinking water? We know what it feels like when we are hot and thirsty. Consider how to keep children cool and well hydrated.
6. Just let them play!
Bottom line – take kids outside and let them play for long periods of uninterrupted time!