Last Child on the Prairie {On Playing Outside, Part 2}

Last Child on the Prairie {On Playing Outside, Part 2}

Last week I shared a little bit about my experiences interacting with nature as a child and how those — and Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods — have affected my parenting philosophies. Then, in this weekend’s newsletter, I shared some of the strategies we use to encourage outside play (sign up here to be sure you don’t miss future newsletters!).

Today I want to talk about some of the lessons we’ve learned this year about outside play and how we make it a priority without sacrificing our sanity:

1. Outside play begets outside play.

You’ve probably heard the old adage that “sleep begets sleep” in babies and children, and I think that principle actually applies to a lot of areas of life, including playing outside.

The more my kids are “forced” outside, the more they actually want to be out there. Sometimes it just takes 15 minutes of wandering around for them to come up with some scheme or idea, but almost without fail, the times when I have to push the hardest for them to go outside become the times when I have to fight to get them back inside as well! I think this has a lot to do with the power of boredom for spurring creativity.

But the cool part is those experiences give them more incentive to get outside the next day…and the next…and the next. Each time they make a new discovery or come up with a new game to play, they add it to their catalog of “things to do outside” so that they’re anxious to get out there each and every day!

2. Dirt is dirty.

Not to be Captain Obvious here, but while I’d love for my kids to stay clean and fresh smelling for more than 5 minutes, the only way that happens is when they’re asleep! The truth is that dirt is messy; it just is. And accepting that they will get dirty each day — and so will our floors as they track the dirt in with them from outside — has made a huge difference in my stress level.

In a culture that prizes cleanliness, it’s important to remember that playing in the dirt has real health benefits, and I think the psychological benefits alone outweigh the inconvenience!

As a side note, teaching our girls to shower by themselves has made a huge difference in this area as well. Our oldest didn’t start showering by herself until she was 7, but our 5 year old has been begging for the privilege, and even she can do it mostly by herself at this point. (We just make sure to help the younger ones every few days to make sure they’re getting really clean at least some of the time!)

Last Child on the Prairie {On Playing Outside, Part 2}

3. You don’t need fancy toys and activities.

Boredom is good, especially outside, and while I wouldn’t want to drop my kids off in the middle of acres of asphalt without anything to do, the truth is they’d probably come up with something to do do anyway if I did! I have tons of cute activities pinned on Pinterest, but I never seem to get around to those, and with a few balls, sleds, jump ropes, shovels and a playground, my kids literally spend hours and hours playing outside. I have a feeling that adding additional activities would just make them want to be entertained more and more!

That said, I am hoping to come up with a few creative ideas before the cold weather hits. Last year the big girls played outside a fair amount even when it was cold, but there aren’t leaves and berries to pick, the ground is often too hard to dig and sitting on the porch to read a book isn’t as fun when you’re shivering, so I’m thinking about ways to make our yard more appealing during winter.

4. Not all dangers are worth avoiding.

My husband has an intense — and somewhat irrational — fear of the girls getting bit by a snake while they’re outside exploring, and he rarely lets them into the “tall grass” (which is what we call the fields surrounding our lot) for that reason. While I completely understand his desire to protect them from dangers, I also think that fear can make us miss out on a lot of great experiences.

We let our girls climb to the top of their playground or scale trees despite the danger of falling, we let them use knives and the stove in the kitchen, we even — gasp — let them run on our gravel driveway even though they could fall and skin their hands and knees. That’s not to say there aren’t limits, and I don’t think they’ll be hanging out on the roof of our home anytime soon, but it’s important to evaluate each danger, weigh the dangers and rewards and let kids take risks. Not only does it help them hone their own limitations and boundaries, but — frankly — life is dangerous, and I don’t want them to miss out in my quest to protect them!

In conclusion.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that the benefits of playing outside far outweigh the drawbacks and trouble. Dirt can be cleaned up and boo-boos can be kissed, but the time my children spend outside affects them in much more lasting ways!

How do you encourage outside play?