By Karrie McAllister
If I had a nickel for every time my children asked to go outside and play…
There are so many things about children that adults can never understand; the way they laugh at the silliest joke, the way they can watch the same movie over and over, and the way they can be so content and when they are outside in nature. While I admit to chuckling along with their jokes and tolerating repeated movies, the peace that I feel from watching them outside makes the mystery all worth its while.
Children need nature. They need the freedom, the unstructured playground of the woods, the creek, the field. They need to know that the same tree that was “base” for a game of tag yesterday can now be the mast of a pirate ship. They need the smells and sights that send their little bodies into sensory overload, and the feeling of dirt under their nails.
Nature needs children, too. It is a bond so unmistakable once you’ve seen a child take a walk and find a shiny rock. She picks it up, rubs off the dirt, and begs to take it home. It is her treasure, and is kept in a special shoe box that is available to view by permission only. If only that little rock had a mouth, I’m sure it would be smiling.
A huge problem that parents face these days is the safety of the outdoors. Media is littered with terrible stories of abduction and other dangers that make most parents, myself included, skeptical about letting my children run free outside. We want to protect them, but the truth is that we don’t always have the time it takes to play in a child’s world. There is laundry to be done, dinner to be made.
But it is important for children to have a relationship with their world, and it is possible for them to enjoy the outdoors in a safe way.
Here are some ideas for spending time in nature with your children:
1.Designate an “outside adventure day.” For us in the summer, it is Friday mornings. We rotate walking parks and try to spend some time in the woods away from playground equipment. Maybe it’s just an hour of skipping stones in the pond or a short hike, but it’s a constant and something my children look forward to.
2. Let your children create their own nature collection. Give up a space on your back patio or in your garage where they can pick up small bits of nature and put it on display in their museum. We have an old, worn down bookshelf in our garage that contains snakeskins, seed pods, and more rocks that I can count. Each piece has been collected with wonder, and laid out with care.
3. Dig up a small square in your backyard. What little boy doesn’t enjoy digging in the dirt? Give him his own space to dig around in and feel with his fingers. Sand boxes are neat and clean, but don’t offer the muddy mess that is so appealing to children. (A bonus of this tip is that hopefully he’ll stop digging in your flowerbeds!)
4. Dine alfresco—without the aid of a table and chairs. My children love to eat outside, way out in our backyard. We are fortunate to have an old camp stove that still works, and the noodles that come out of that taste better than anywhere else. My children beg to have “camping picnics,” where we eat our meals on a blanket in the woods. Maybe it’s the closeness to the Earth, but even I’ll admit the food tastes a little better when cooked outdoors.
5. Learn something. Beyond the creativity and free play of nature, when kids are old enough to appreciate the diversity of the world around them, introduce them to tree types and local plants. (Plant #1 to learn: poison ivy!) They will soon realize that the mast of the pirate ship is actually a maple, the same one that sends out its helicopter seeds that are forever entertaining.
Getting outside doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t take special equipment—just a little bit of time, energy, and a whole bunch of imagination. It may be that I’ll never understand their youthful wonder, but I can certainly appreciate it and know that their time spent outdoors is time that brings them inner peace, happiness, and most importantly, smiles.
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